But he didn’t stop walking. Could not.
The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway home.
With no way to survive in the cities, and the great rail network of India was closed for the most part, many made the extraordinary decision to walk thousands of miles back to their families.
Chouhan knew the risks. But on May 12, he decided to defy India’s stringent blockade laws and begin the 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) trek from Bangalore’s technology center, formerly known as Bangalore, to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
He had hoped to hitchhike most of the way, but with the police searching the trucks for stowaways, drivers were demanding fares beyond Chouhan’s budget. For 10 days, he would have to dodge police checkpoints, survive on tea and cookies, and walk on aching feet.
“I don’t think I can forget this trip for my life,” he says. “It will always carry memories of sadness and anxiety.”
A getaway at 3 a.m.
Chouhan moved to Bangalore last December to work as a bricklayer at a construction site.
In his hometown of Tribhuvan Nagar, on India’s border with Nepal, he earned 250 rupees ($ 3.30) per day. In Bangalore, I could duplicate that.
He and his brother, who worked in another state, sent home about Rs 14,000 ($ 185) a month, enough to support his family of 11, including Chouhan’s two young children and elderly parents, who live in a thatched house in the middle of the sugar cane. and wheat fields. Her nephew Arvind Thakur joined Chouhan in the city as soon as he turned 14, the legal age to work in India.
When Chouhan, his nephew, and nine other migrants from his hometown decided to leave Bengaluru, the country had been closed for weeks. Some rail services resumed on May 3, allowing interstate travel, but only subject to a laborious approval process.
Chouhan normally pays Rs 300 ($ 4) for the 48-hour trip home in the lowest transportation class, but during the pandemic that price skyrocketed to Rs 1,200 ($ 15.90). The state police were assigned to sell tickets and keep order in police stations filled with travelers desperate to get home.
The police in Bengalore said CNN resorted to using walking sticks to clear crowds when the day’s sales ended. “We were beaten many times. Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we can’t feel pain,” says Chouhan.
After spending five days outside a police station trying to get a ticket, Chouhan and his villagers decided to walk. They dared not tell their families.
“My father is severely diabetic and would bill him and my mother if they found out that we were walking home with no money,” says Chouhan. “They would cry until we return. We all decided to tell our families that we were waiting for a train.”
He packed four shirts, a towel, and a sheet in his backpack, along with a couple of bottles of water. There were 170 rupees ($ 2.25) in his wallet.
At 3 a.m. On May 12, Chouhan emerged from the tin shed of a room he shared with 10 other people and took his first step home.
When Chouhan left, police checkpoints had been erected throughout the city. Authorities had not anticipated the avalanche of migrants who wanted to leave, and clarified that the registration applied only to those “stranded,” not migrant workers. Unauthorized interstate travel was prohibited.
When Chouhan’s group crossed the city, the police picked them up and took them 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 unaware of them and are exploited by employers.
At noon, the police officers changed shifts and the group was left unattended. “We ran out of there,” says Chouhan. “We ran for two kilometers or so until we felt we were safe.”
Following the train tracks to avoid police on the roads, the group walked overnight, with other migrants, until they entered Andhra Pradesh at 1 a.m.
After 46 hours, they had crossed the first of five state borders they would encounter. They had traveled only 74 miles (120 kilometers).
Hope, solidarity and hunger
The group of 11 Chouhan migrants had nine smartphones among them, and they used Google Maps to navigate their route. They used the flashing blue dot to see if they were walking roughly in the right direction.
To conserve battery power, only one person had their phone on at a time, and they took turns sharing the GPS. There were few places on the road where they could charge their phones.
The first part of his journey traced National Highway 44, a long, open highway that divides India perfectly in two, stretching the length of the country from Tamil Nadu in the south to Srinagar in the north.
This path would take them to Hyderabad, the city of 10 million people that would be the first major milestone of their journey, and where they had heard that it would be possible to hitchhike the rest of the way home.
As temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walked approximately 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour, taking a short break every two hours. Their goal was to complete approximately 68 miles (110 kilometers) per day. “There was a temptation to rest or take a nap,” he says. “But we knew that it became more difficult to walk each time we sat down.”
Along the way, they would see other migrant groups head to the impoverished western states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which supply cities in India with much of their migrant workforce.
Along the way, Chouhan says the traditional divisions of caste and religion, deeply entrenched fault lines in rural inland India, disappeared. His group of 11 comprised various castes from the same village. There were brahmins and thakurs, who are considered superior castes, and chamars, who are among the lowest. On the long walk home, it made no difference.
When Chouhan’s shoe broke on the second day, the group raised their funds to buy him a new shoe.
But by day three, they hadn’t had a full meal since they left. Bangalore Each person had started with between 150 rupees ($ 2) and 300 rupees ($ 4). Instead, they would buy 20 cookies for 100 rupees ($ 1.32) and ration them throughout the day. “We had to save each rupee in case we needed it later during the trip,” says Chouhan.
“Our stomachs would rumble. We ate a cookie to keep him quiet. We were hungry, but we had no choice. We had to save every rupee in an emergency.”
Around 8 a.m. of that day, they stopped next to the National Highway 44, thinking that they would rest for an hour. They slept until eight, oblivious to the noise of the noises of the highway and the noisy trucks.
When they woke up at 4 p.m. Hyderabad was 250 miles (400 km) and a state border.
With Hyderabad in his sights, Chouhan walked at night. But when his group reached the Kurnool village around 10 a.m. On the fourth day, a police checkpoint blocked the bridge they had to cross to reach the city.
Chouhan saw a stream of migrants following a winding path along the river and followed them. About 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, hundreds crossed the river on foot.
Chouhan and the others doubted, they did not know how to swim. “Men, women, children, the elderly were crossing the river,” he says. “(We think) if they can do it, why can’t we?”
After a long, hot summer, the river was only 3 feet (1 meter) deep. Chouhan held his bag over his head, and one of the tallest men in his group carried his 14-year-old nephew.
“We were so scared that we would crawl. But we kept telling ourselves that this was the only way home. This 100-meter stretch was perhaps the scariest thing we’ve had on this trip,” says Chouhan.
Back on the highway, truckers asked for up to 2,500 rupees ($ 33) per person to take them to Uttar Pradesh. “They told us that if the police caught them, they would have to pay huge fines. They didn’t want to take the risk without receiving a payment in return. We had no choice but to walk,” says Chouhan.
But others were more charitable. An old man offered them their first full meal in four days. A trucker sympathized with their blistered feet and offered them a ride. He was transporting rice across the border and they slept among the jute bags as he drove them out of Hyderabad.
After crossing the Telangana-Maharashtra border, they had another stroke of luck: a villager took them to a school where NGOs gave food and water to migrant workers.
More than 300 immigrants were eating when the police arrived.
“They started abusing us,” says Chouhan. “They said that we were not following the social distancing and that we should sit 10 feet from each other. They tried to disperse the crowd and told the organizers to stop giving food.”
But the migrants outnumbered the police. “We started screaming. Some migrant workers even started pushing the police, and the police pulled back to their jeep,” he says. “We were angry. They (the police) don’t help us at all, they don’t help people help us.”
Pandemic and road death
There is little data on how migration of urban workers has impacted the spread of the coronavirus in India. Returning migrants have 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 contracted it en route.
On the fifth day of their trip, the group had a health scare as they approached the central Indian city of Nagpur.
Rajesh’s nephew, Arvind Thakur, had a fever. “I was scared,” says Thakur. “I don’t understand anything about the coronavirus. But the adults told me that it can’t be a coronavirus, since it first presents as a cold and cough. I just had a fever. They gave me tablets and I felt better.
On the road, the pandemic was a low priority: There were more pressing health problems: hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and pain.
As of May 24, it had recorded 667 deaths, of which 244 were migrant workers who died while walking home: either from starvation, exhaustion, or from rail and road accidents.
“In Bangalore, I was afraid of this disease,” says Chouhan. “Now all we wanted was to go home. It was out of our hands if we got sick during this trip.”
“By the time we left Bengaluru, we had left our fate to the gods.”
Beneath the black night sky and thick canopies of the wooded areas of central India that once inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The Jungle Book”, Chouhan crossed the border between Maharasthra and Madhya Pradesh. It was day six.
In Madhya Pradesh, tractors, buses, and trucks helped the group during the day, and hillside villagers provided them with food and even a tanker for bathing.
Two days later, they reached the border of their home state, Uttar Pradesh. The home was only 217 miles (350 km) away. “We forgot our pain. It seemed like we were already home,” says Chouhan.
When they passed through Prayagraj, a central site of Hindu spiritualism where the Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati rivers converge, Chouhan indulged in a rare moment of joy.
Joining thousands of Hindus, he took a dip in the cold waters and prayed that the group would come home early.
A day later, on their ninth walk, they reached the state capital, Lucknow.
The home was only 80 miles (128 km) away. Chouhan bought a meal for the first time since his journey began and called his family. “We told them that we had come by train to Uttar Pradesh. We would be home in one day,” he says.
The closer they got to home, the more tired Chouhan said they felt.
On the 10th, in Gonda, 18 miles (30 km) from his village, Thakur’s body surrendered. He fell face down on the asphalt. The group revived him by pouring water on his face.
Then, just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from their home, they met with the police. Too weak to run, they allowed officers to quarantine them.
Finally, they were home.
Home and scarred
The scars from climbing India’s spine wreaked havoc on their bodies.
Chouhan says he has lost 10 kilograms (22 pounds) throughout the trip. He says his feet have become so swollen that it is difficult to walk to the bathroom at the school where he must be quarantined for 14 days.
However, in Uttar Pradesh quarantine is poorly applied.
On May 24, Chouhan says his family was allowed to visit him in quarantine.
His children threw themselves at him. And when they hugged tightly, Chouhan says he forgot his pain. She has been allowed to visit her family at home and go to the pharmacy to buy medicine, for which she took loans to pay.
Seeing his thatched-roof house where his large family sleeps, he says, reminds him of how his work in Bangalore has supported his family.
However, on May 25, the tragedy struck. Salman, thirty, one of 11 who walked from Bangalore, was bitten by a snake a few days after arriving home and leaving quarantine.
He died on the way to the hospital.
Chouhan is mourning the tragedy. However, he realizes that the poverty in his town, the hunger of his family and the growing debt of his medical treatment mean that he must eventually return to the city to work.
“When I left Bangalore, I decided never to return,” he says. “The best I can do is wait a few weeks to see if the lock is relaxed before going back to work.”
Design and graphics by Jason Kwok. Edited by Jenni Marsh and Hilary Whiteman.