But he did not stop walking. He could not.
The 26-year-old migrant worker is in the heart of India and only halfway home.
With no way to survive in the cities, and India’s vast railroad network largely closed, many made the extraordinary decision to walk thousands of miles back to their families.
Many did not succeed. In one incident, 16 workers were hit by a freight train while they slept on the tracks. Roadside accidents claimed the lives of others. Some die from exhaustion, dehydration, or starvation. People who are picked up by the police are often sent back to the cities they are trying to leave.
Chouhan knows the risks. But on May 12, he decided to oppose India’s strict lockdown laws and began walking 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) from the Bengaluru technology center, formerly known as Bangalore, to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
He hoped to hitchhike away from the road, but with the police checking trucks for stowaways, the driver demanded costs outside Chouhan’s budget. For 10 days, he had to avoid police checkpoints, survive by drinking tea and biscuits, and walk with aching legs.
“I don’t think I can forget this trip all my life,” he said. “It will always bring memories of sadness and anxiety.”
Vacation at 3 in the morning
Chouhan moved to Bengaluru last December to work as a mason at a construction site.
In his village Tribhuvan Nagar, on India’s border with Nepal, he gets 250 rupees ($ 3.30) a day. In Bengaluru, he can double that.
He and his brother, who work in another state, send home about 14,000 rupees ($ 185) a month – enough to support their 11-year-old family, including two Chouhan children and their parents, who live in a thatched roof house located in the middle of sugar cane. and wheat fields. His nephew, Arvind Thakur, joined Chouhan in the city as soon as he was 14, the legal age of working in India.
By the time Chouhan, his nephew and nine other migrants from their home city had decided to leave Bengaluru, the country had been closed for weeks. Some train services will resume on May 3, allowing travel between states – but only subject to a tiring approval process.
Migrants are told to register their travel plans at the police station. As of May 5, more than 214,000 people have been registered
to leave the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru is the capital. However, nearly 10,000 people get tickets because there are limited train services.
Chouhan usually pays 300 rupees ($ 4) for the 48-hour return trip on the lowest train class, but during the pandemic the price jumped to 1,200 rupees ($ 15.90). The state police were assigned to sell tickets and maintain order at the police station which was crowded with travelers who wanted to go home.
Police in Bengalore notify Their CNN uses sticks to clean the crowd when sales for the day are over. “We were beaten repeatedly. Just because we are poor does not mean we cannot feel pain,” Chouhan said.
After spending five days outside the police station trying to get a ticket, Chouhan and his village colleagues decided to walk. They did not dare to tell their families.
“My father has severe diabetes and it will cost him and my mother if they find out that we are walking home without money,” Chouhan said. “They cried until we returned. We all decided to tell our family that we were waiting for the train.”
He packed four shirts, towels and sheets in his backpack, along with several bottles of water. In his wallet there are 170 rupees ($ 2.25).
At 3am on May 12, Chouhan slipped out of the one-room warehouse he shared with 10 other people and took his first step towards home.
By the time Chouhan left, police checkpoints had been set up throughout the city. The authorities have not anticipated the invasion of migrants who want to leave and clarified that registration only applies to those who are “stranded” – not migrant workers. Travel between countries without permission is prohibited.
When the Chouhan group walked across the city, they were picked up by the police and taken to the station where their boss – who never wanted them to leave – would pick them up. While migrant workers have rights under Indian law, they are often not aware of and exploited by employers.
During the day, police officers change shifts and the group is left unattended. “We ran away from there,” Chouhan said. “We ran two kilometers or more until we felt safe.”
Following the railroad track to avoid police on the road, the group walked all night, with other migrants, until they entered Andhra Pradesh at 1am.
After 46 hours, they had crossed the first state line they would meet. They have traveled only 120 kilometers.
Hope, solidarity and hunger
The group of 11 Chouhan migrants has nine smartphones among them, and they use Google Maps to navigate their routes. They use flashing blue dots to see if they are going roughly in the right direction.
To save battery power, only one person turns on their phone at once, and they take turns sharing GPS. There are a number of places where they can charge their phones.
The first part of their journey followed National Highway 44 – a long and open road that sliced India in two, stretching along the country from Tamil Nadu in the south to Srinagar in the north.
This road will take them to Hyderabad, a city of 10 million people that will be the first major landmark of their journey – and where they hear it will be possible to hitchhike the rest of the way home.
When the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walks around 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour, resting briefly every two hours. He aims to complete about 68 miles (110 kilometers) a day. “There is a temptation to rest or take a nap,” he said. “But we realize that it becomes increasingly difficult to walk every time we sit down.”
Along the way, they will see other migrant groups heading to the poor western countries of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which supply Indian cities with many of their migrant workers.
On the way, Chouhan said the traditional divisions of caste and religion – a deeply rooted fault line in rural India – disappeared. His group of 11 people stretched various castes from the same village. There are Brahmins and Thakurs, who are considered top castes, and Chamar, who are among the lowest. On the long journey home, it doesn’t make a difference.
When Chouhan’s sandals broke on the second day, the group raised their funds to buy him new shoes.
But on the third day, they had not eaten fully since they left Bengaluru Everyone has started with between 150 rupees ($ 2) and 300 rupees ($ 4). Instead, they will buy 20 biscuits for 100 rupees ($ 1.32) and ration it all day. “We have to save every rupee if we need it later during the trip,” Chouhan said.
“Our stomachs will rumble. We eat biscuits to keep quiet. We are hungry, but we have no choice. We must save every rupee if an emergency occurs.”
Around 8 o’clock that morning, they stopped at the side of National Highway 44, thinking they would rest for an hour. They slept for eight, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the noise of the highway and the thunderous truck.
When they woke up at 4 pm Hyderabad was 250 miles (400 kilometers) and a state border far away.
Crossing the border
With Hyderabad in his view, Chouhan walked all night. But when his group reached the city of Kurnool around 10am on the fourth day, the police checkpoint blocked the bridge they had to cross to reach the city.
Chouhan saw the flow of migrants following the winding road along the river and following them. About 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, hundreds of people cross the river on foot.
Chouhan and the others hesitated – they did not know how to swim. “Men, women, children, elderly people are crossing the river,” he said. “(We think) if they can do it, why can’t we.”
After a long, hot summer, the depth of the river is only 3 feet (1 meter). Chouhan held his bag above his head, and one of the tallest men in their group carried his 14-year-old niece.
“We are very afraid we will be swept away. But we continue to tell ourselves that this is the only way home. This 100-meter stretch is perhaps the most frightening we have ever experienced on this trip,” Chouhan said.
Back on the highway, the truck driver asked for 2,500 rupees ($ 33) per person to take them to Uttar Pradesh. “They told us that if the police arrest them, they must pay a large fine. They don’t want to take risks without being paid in return. We have no choice but to walk,” Chouhan said.
But others are more charitable. An old man offered them their first full meal in four days. A truck driver felt sorry for their blistered feet and offered them a ride. He hauled rice across the border and they slept between burlap sacks, as he drove them on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
After they crossed the Telangana-Maharashtra border, they had another good fortune – a villager took them to a school where NGOs provided food and water to migrant workers.
More than 300 migrants ate when the police arrived.
“They are starting to abuse us,” Chouhan said. “They say we don’t follow social distance and we have to sit 10 feet from each other. They are trying to disperse the crowd and tell the organizers to stop distributing food.”
But the number of migrants is more than the number of police. “We started shouting back. Some migrant workers even started pushing the police, and the police retreated towards their jeep,” he said. “We are angry. They (the police) don’t help us at all – they don’t help people help us.”
Pandemic and road deaths
When Chouhan was in Bengaluru, he had heard about a pandemic that made India stop. But he said his understanding of it was bad. When he left on May 12, Bengaluru had just 186 confirmed cases
. As he walked home, Chouhan chatted with other migrants, curled up in trucks and tractors, and ate nearby, breaking social rules that kept him away.
There is little data on how the migration of urban workers has impacted the spread of the corona virus in India. Returning migrants tested positive for the disease in large numbers in many states, but it is not known whether they contracted Covid-19 in the city or took it along the road.
In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, more than 807,000 interstate migrants were being quarantined on May 24. Out of more than 50,000 tested, 1,569 were diagnosed
On the fifth day of their trip, the group had health fears as they approached the city of Nagpur in central India.
Rajesh’s niece, Arvind Thakur, has a fever. “I am indeed afraid,” Thakur said. “I don’t understand anything about coronavirus. But adults told me that it wasn’t coronavirus because it caught a cold and coughed first. I just had a fever. They gave me tablets and I felt better.”
On the highway, a pandemic is a low priority – there are more pressing health problems: hunger, thirst, fatigue and pain.
There are no official data on deaths due to
Indian lockdown, but a volunteer based database
formed by a group of Indian academics have tracked local media reports about deaths as a consequence of the policy.
On May 24, 667 deaths were recorded, of which 244 were migrant workers who died while walking home: either due to hunger, fatigue or in train and road accidents.
“In Bengaluru, I am afraid of this disease,” Chouhan said. “Now, all we want to do is go home. Not in our hands if we fall ill during this trip.
“When we leave Bengaluru, we surrender our destiny to the gods.”
Under the black night sky and thick canopy from forested areas in Central India that once inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The Jungle Book,” Chouhan crossed the Maharasthra-Madhya Pradesh border. That’s the sixth day.
In Madhya Pradesh, tractors, buses and trucks helped the group throughout the day, and villagers on the hillside gave them food and even a tanker to bathe.
Two days later, they reached the border of their home state, Uttar Pradesh. The house is only 217 miles (350 kilometers). “We forgot our pain. It felt like we were at home,” Chouhan said.
As they passed Prayagraj, a site of the center of Hindu spiritualism where the rivers of the Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati met, Chouhan allowed himself to experience rare moments of joy.
Joining thousands of Hindus, he swam in the cool waters, and prayed that the group would get home early.
One day later, on their ninth walk, they reached the state capital, Lucknow.
The house is only 80 miles (128 kilometers) away. Chouhan bought food for the first time since their journey began and called out to his family. “We told them that we came by train to Uttar Pradesh. We will go home in one day,” he said.
The closer they went home, the more tired Chouhan said they felt.
On day 10, at Gonda, 18 miles (30 kilometers) from their village, Thakur’s body surrendered. He fell first face to the asphalt. The group brought him back to life by pouring water on his face.
Then, only 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the house, they ran to the police. Too weak to run, they let officers put quarantine.
Finally, they went home.
Home and scars
Scars running on the Indian spine take their toll on their bodies.
Chouhan said he had lost 10 kilograms (22 pounds) along the way. He said his legs were swollen making it difficult to walk to the bathroom at the school where he was supposed to be quarantined for 14 days.
However, in Uttar Pradesh, quarantine is badly treated.
On May 24, Chouhan said his family was allowed to visit him in quarantine.
His children lunged at him. And when they embraced tightly, Chouhan said he forgot his pain. He has been allowed to visit his family in their home, and go to the pharmacy to buy medicine, for which he takes a loan to pay.
Seeing his roofed house, where his extended family slept, he said, reminded him how his work in Bengaluru had supported his family.
But on May 25, tragedy struck. 30-year-old Salman, one of 11 who walked from Bengaluru, was bitten by a snake just days after arriving home and leaving quarantine.
He died on the way to the hospital.
More than 45,000 people die
snake bites in India every year. More than 200 people attended Salman’s funeral, including several groups that walked with Chouhan, who were supposed to be quarantined.
Chouhan was grieving over the tragedy. But he realized that poverty in his village, his family’s hunger, and rising debt from their medical care meant he finally had to return to the city to work.
“When I left Bengaluru, I decided not to return,” he said. “The best I can do is wait for a few weeks to see if the lock is relaxed before leaving again for work.”
Design and graphics by Jason Kwok. Edited by Jenni Marsh and Hilary Whiteman.