How seven daily wagers cycled 1,232 km home

Filmmaker Vinod Kapri travelled with the men during lockdown, from Ghaziabad to Saharsa in eastern Bihar, to capture the exodus and plight of migrants.

Filmmaker Vinod Kapri travelled with the men during lockdown, from Ghaziabad to Saharsa in eastern Bihar, to capture the exodus and plight of migrants.

Why is the country seeing the ‘biggest exodus since the Partition’? Why are thousands of migrants heading home during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus? What explains this fear and desperation?

To find out, journalist-turned-filmmaker Vinod Kapri, 48, along with a crew, followed seven daily wagers — Ritesh, Mukesh, Sandeep, Sonu, Ram Babu, Ashish and Krishna — as they cycled 1,232 km home for nine days — from Ghaziabad in western Uttar Pradesh to Saharsa in eastern Bihar.


When the lockdown was extended, they asked their families to send them money, with which they bought second-hand cycles. “What I saw during the journey was heartbreaking,” he says. “How these men not only fought hunger and heat, but how they kept going on, despite their cycles giving them trouble every 40-50 km. Sometimes the chain would break or a tyre would puncture — remember, these were old cycles — and it would slow them down a great deal.”

According to Kapri, it’s important to understand about how daily wagers stay in the city. “They live in places where five to eight people share a single room. They all hold different occupations: Some are construction workers, watchmen, vegetable or fruit vendors. They also have an arrangement that, at any given point, only three to four can be in the room, because of space constraints. Since they sleep and work in shifts, they had managed to work out a schedule. But during the lockdown, when all of them were out of work, eight in a room became stifling.”

With Vinod Kapri: Ritesh, Mukesh, Sandeep, Sonu, Ram Babu, Ashish, Krishna

With nothing to eat, these daily wagers, who earn Rs 300-400 a day, and survive hand-to-mouth, were left starving. To make things worse, the landlord expected rent. As the lockdown kept getting pushed further, with no scope of normalcy in sight, it slowly triggered an existential crisis for them.
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“They thought it’s better to die while attempting to go home, with the hope of seeing their family and loved ones one last time, than dying alone and miserable, with no one to ask for them,” says Kapri. “During my interactions, I realised how much dignity they have for their work. They are not beggars, they didn’t want to beg.”

Beaten by police
“Near the Brij Ghat area, the police stopped them and threatened to throw them in the Ganga,” says Kapri. “The daily wagers were mercilessly beaten. They had to run and hide in a nearby village. Some of them were so desperate that they swam across the river, despite villagers refraining them from doing so. The villagers took pity on them, and offered to take them across in a boat early next morning.”

This is when they realised the highway was no longer safe for them. Ritesh, 22, the youngest and most tech-savvy among them, used the GPS to find a walking trail, and decided that they would go through the jungle and follow a village route to reach Saharsa. For two days, they did all this to avoid harassment from the police.

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Ashish with family

World of good people
This journey would not have been possible if Good Samaritans didn’t come forward to help them out. “Once when a cycle broke down at night, while we were crossing a village, the villagers got wind of their plight, and called the cycle repair person, and got him to open the shop for them,” say Kapri. “The cyclewala not only attended to the bike that had broken down, but he repaired all the others, which had seem some wear and tear due to the journey. And he took no money for this.”

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When they reached Budaun, one of their cycles broke down again. They were all hungry. “I walked up to a small sweet shop and asked the man if he had something to eat. He said that shop is closed, and they are only serving tea before the cops come and close them down,” says Kapri. “I explained to him about the plight of these seven men, and their journey from Ghaziabad to Saharsa. On hearing that they have been on the road for two days, and will take another six to seven days to reach home, he said that he has some aaloo ka masala, and he can make samosas for them.”

This man, too, didn’t take money from them. They bought some bread and had bread-samosa. During the journey, it struck Kapri that there are more good people in the world than bad.

From left: Sandeep, Sonu, Ram Babu, Ashish, Krishna

There was more trouble in store for them though as they reached the Bihar border. The state government, according to Kapri, had arranged for buses at Gopalganj to take them to Saharsa. This journey was about 15-16 hours and they were served no food. When they reached, they were put in a government building, but still they were not given any food. In the morning, they were shifted to a stadium, where there were 400 other migrants like them. They went hungry for almost 24 hours.

“When I started from Ghaziabad, my idea was to see and feel what these migrants who are travelling great distances to go home go through. But by the end of it, I felt I was one of them,” he says. “Their win felt like mine. My biggest emotional moment came when I bid them goodbye at the isolation centre. These men started to cry. I asked them why you are crying, and they said that it was like their own father was leaving them. On my way back from Saharsa, I kept thinking about them. I even spoke to them a few times on video call.” The seven daily workers, in a few days time, will be reunited with their family after their quarantine period ends.
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