Hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of a Rs 20 lakh crore special package for “small businesses, farmers and migrants” struggling to deal the coronavirus lockdown, a migrant worker trying to cycle over 500 km from Lucknow to her village in Chhattisgarh said there was little to be happy about in the grand announcement.
Lakshmi Sahu, who eked out a living as a daily wage labourer alongside her husband in the Uttar Pradesh capital, also said she was more concerned about getting home safely, amid tragic stories of migrants on cycles being run over by speeding vehicles.
“What is there to be happy about when there is no work? I am a labourer and there is no employment… what will I eat? It is better to return to my village and work in the fields,” she told reporters who pressed her for a reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech, while her family was squatting by the roadside having tea and biscuits in the searing summer heat.
Lakshmi Sahu, her husband and their young child set out from their shanty on Tuesday night and reached Rae Bareli, which is around 70 km away, this morning when members of the media asked them about the government helping “our poor brothers and sisters”.
“The package will… help small businesses, labourers, farmers, the middle class and cottage industries. It will focus on the well-being of migrant workers too,” the Prime Minister said in his speech, adding, “Day labourers, migrant workers have suffered much in this period. It is our duty to do something for them”.
Following the lockdown in March, lakhs of migrant workers, stranded without jobs or money, have been forced into attempting punishing treks home. The government has, since then, facilitated their return via the Railways’ “shramik” but the sheer scale of the crisis means thousands are still being forced to walk or cycle hundreds of kilometres home.
Many have died on the way, their bodies a heart-breaking reminder of the cost of the coronavirus outbreak, not just in terms of damage to the economy and related deaths but also in terms of the humanitarian crisis triggered by the migrant exodus.
This morning a woman and her child, part of a group of workers returning from Gujarat were killed in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat district after the mini truck they were travelling in collided with a bigger truck.
On Saturday a migrant trying to cycle more than 1,000 km from Delhi to Bihar’s East Champaran died in Lucknow after being hit by a car. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Last week a migrant worker and his wife were also run over, while trying to cycle from Lucknow to Chhattisgarh – a distance of nearly 750 kilometres.
As Lakshmi and her family get up to resume their back-breaking journey, one journalist repeats a question about the benefits of the Prime Minister’s package.
“What benefit? We did not even get ration where we were. I went to three ration shops. Everyone asked for my Aadhaar but nobody gave me rice. It would have been better if they arranged for buses for us to go home. At least we could have said the government cares for us,” she retorts before setting on her cycle, with a husband and child in tow.