A year ago, countries around the world went into various levels of lockdown in their effort to keep the virus away. In Nepal, the borders, including airports, were closed with just a day’s notice. Public transportation was suspended. Chaos ensued as the government and the people tried to make sense of what next. I was in Kathmandu at that time, with a ticket to leave in two weeks’ time. With no option to travel, I stayed indoors adjusting my life to the “new normal” along with the rest of the country and the world.
While the comfortable classes cribbed about not getting our doctor-recommended trainer-assisted exercise, we started hearing about another group of people who started walking. Migrant workers, who had left home in search of a better life in the cities and towns far away, were left without jobs or money for rent, with only prospects of hunger looming ahead. Their already precarious lives were turned upside down. So, they trudged back home, carrying all their worldly possessions crammed into canvas bags and plastic — an exodus of families, young children and elderly grandparents, pregnant women and nursing mothers, forced to walk hundreds of miles in scorching heat.
The news first trickled in from India, where the government announced a three-week lockdown. With the massive scale of India’s population, the sea of people crowding train stations and bus depots, and walking along the empty highways became photo ops circulated across the world.
In Nepal, walking started a little later, in a slow trickle. As the government announced the lockdown in one-week increments, people initially decided to wait it out. When the prospects of ending the lockdown kept moving further and further, and hunger became unbearable, they too started walking back home, up and down the hills and across Kathmandu valley.
Between India and Nepal, the usually open border with free movement of people of the two countries closed, leaving Indians stranded in Nepal and Nepalis left south of the border. Stuck for days in Dharchula, from where they could see their village, some young Nepali men risked their lives to swim across Mahakali river.
The lack of coordination and government oversight made misinformation and disinformation spread like wildfires. Local vigilantes without enough information took it upon themselves to protect their neighborhoods by closing off “local borders” and harassing people trying to pass through.
These scenarios were recreated across the South Asian subcontinent, and in other parts of the world as well. Venezuelans who had gone to Ecuador in search of work started the reverse journey of 1,300 miles across three countries, also walking along highways and hills.
In most places, it was utter chaos, leaving the migrant workers to fend for themselves, with some support from self-guided volunteer groups if they were lucky. Volunteers set up stations in cities across Nepal to distribute cooked food or weekly rations. Students in Dhulikhel outside Kathmandu valley left shoes for the walkers. It is unclear if those walking home really needed shoes, but it was a jarring visual reminder to those of us ensconced in the comforts of our homes. In India, volunteer groups coordinated to find train tickets for migrant workers trying to go home.
People complained about government inaction and mismanagement, but the governments refused to pay attention to the plight of migrant workers. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Nepali workers stuck in Dharchula, and the Supreme Court of Nepal ruled that they should be allowed to come back home. But the government just ignored the Supreme Court order for days without any consequences. Instead of properly managing travel and quarantine facilities, governments focused on curtailing movements. On both sides of the border, police harassed the walkers — they lathicharged and arrested anyone found outdoors regardless of reason.
At the end of March, a picture circulated widely showing migrant workers who had reached the town of Bareilly in northern India being sprayed with disinfectants meant to clean buses. Although the few cases in South Asia at that time had reached the subcontinent via people traveling by planes, it was the poorest amongst us who were made to bear the brunt and treated like pariahs.
As the news poured in about more and more migrant workers walking home, stories became statistics and memes, competing with fresh-baked breads and Dalgona coffee recipes for our attention as we scrolled through our newsfeeds.
Some stories lingered a little bit longer.
Rajesh Chouhan, a 26-year old man working as a mason at a construction in the tech hub of Bangalore in southern India, walked for more than a thousand miles to his home in northern India. With swollen legs and blistered feet, he walked for ten days dodging police and surviving on tea and biscuits.
Sixteen other walkers, too exhausted to reach a train station, laid down for the night on the tracks near Aurangabad. They did not know the schedule for the next train. Next morning, no one woke them up before the freight train arrived.
Hom Bahadur Rana Magar, a young Nepali man, fell off a suspension bridge he was trying to cross at night to avoid detection, after the local vigilante groups had blocked it. His family found his body the next day.
A pregnant woman interrupted her journey to give birth to a baby girl and then kept on walking for another hundred miles carrying the newborn. She remained unidentified.
A young father carried home his son who had died on the way. He chose to remain anonymous, afraid of being forced into quarantine if he stopped to ask for help.
Surya Bahadur Tamang, a porter, was found dead in the streets of Kirtipur outside Kathmandu, still holding the namlo he used to carry heavy loads on his back. A familiar face in the streets where he was found, no one had ever bothered to ask him if he had family, or even how old he was.
Birendra Kumar Yadav, returning from India, made it as far as the border check-point in Nepal before collapsing from exhaustion. He never reached home.
Raju Sada, a 16-year old Dalit boy, died in a government quarantine in Janakpur in Nepal, after coming back from India while waiting for his Covid-19 test results. The result came back negative.
Jamlo, a Muria Adivasi girl aged 12, dropped dead after walking almost a hundred miles through the forests. She had left her home in Chattisgarh about two months earlier to work in the chilli fields of Telangana, earning 200 rupees a day. Her aadhaar card listed her name incorrectly in English.
These stories were not inevitable. The exodus did not need to happen if the lockdowns had been planned with the migrant workers in mind, and the details were communicated properly. If their basic necessities were taken care of, they too would have sheltered in place. But no one thought about the millions of people already living precariously. In rare cases, governments, like in Kerala, took proactive action to care for the migrant workers stuck in their area, some employers continued to pay the workers, and a few landlords agreed to forgo rent. Most of the cities, the businesses, the individuals who benefited from their cheap labor did not hesitate to abandon them at the first opportunity.
As the stories came in last year, we lodged our indignation on social media. A year later, we have forgotten most of the details. We are struggling to keep alive even the few names we did manage to learn.
As we make our way back to the pre-pandemic hustle and bustle, how long will we remember the millions who were forced to walk hundreds upon hundreds of miles in sweltering heat with blisters on their feet? Will we remember Jamlo and Raju, and pause to think about all the other Jamlos and Rajus we never even heard about? Will our “new normal” still have cracks where a 12-year old child can fall through and end up working in a chili field a hundred miles away from home?