Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
Reshma Verma, 31, has spent the last year-and-a-half wondering what killed her father – was it COVID, another disease, or the exhaustion from the 800-km-long walk in the peak summer of 2020?
“When we were in Chandigarh in March 2020, he was healthy. My father was only 50 years old. And then, the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and we left for our village in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao. It took us 10 days, and my father fell sick during the walk,” says Reshma, seated in the room where her father breathed his last in their home in Naya Kheda village.
Since his death in 2020, the family has been under debt – one that keeps them up at night, one that has deprived them of the only piece of farmland they owned, and one that has ensured that Reshma’s five children sleep hungry some nights.
Almost two years after the tragedy struck the family of migrant workers, The Quint visited Naya Kheda village in Unnao, to find out the hefty cost of COVID that families of migrant workers have had to pay.
‘Lost Job in the City After PM Modi Announced Lockdown’
In 2017, Reshma, her husband Rajesh, their five children, and Reshma’s father Bhaiya Lal moved to Chandigarh in search of work. After all, they owned a only small piece of land in Naya Kheda village in UP – barely enough to feed them.
“I did sewing work and earned Rs 5,000 a month. My husband worked as a driver and was paid Rs 9,000, and my father worked in a cosmetic store and would get Rs 200-500 a day depending on the work. We were managing somehow,” recalls Reshma, on a chilly February evening in Unnao.
In March 2020, as COVID cases started coming up in India, a sense of panic spread. “Work reduced, people stopped going out, we all stayed indoors as much. We managed the first few days, as we were hopeful that things will get better,” says Rajesh.
And then the announcement of the nationwide lockdown was made by PM Modi. “We all got fired from our jobs. The employers said we should pack up and leave for the village with the children. There were no trains, buses, or taxis. We asked the employers how do we go back?”
With Rs 2,000 in their pocket, two bottles of water, and some soaked gram, Reshma’s family began their 800-km walk from Chandigarh to Naya Kheda village.
They walked at night, walked in the daytime, slept on the road, crossed railway tracks, looked for hand pumps, and found langars. “Ever day we would reach a new city and not know which one,” recalls Reshma, as she looks at the mustard fields opposite her kuccha house in Naya Kheda village.
One day, her father complained of abdominal pain, and then chest pain. Some days, he would swear that he couldn’t walk. Reshma and Rajesh would find medicines on the way. “We slowed down our pace so he could walk. Somehow, we made it to Lucknow on the ninth day. A relative came to pick us up, and we finally reached my parents’ home in Naya Kheda village,” says Reshma.
The struggle was not over yet. Bhaiya Lal’s health deteriorated, and he was rushed to a hospital in Lucknow, around 90 minutes away.
‘Sold Farmland To Repay Some Debt After Father’s Death’
Reshma’s father’s treatment at a Lucknow hospital cost the family around Rs eight-nine lakh, says his wife Sheela Verma, 50. He was admitted for weeks, and the family borrowed money from multiple people to keep the treatment going.
“We borrowed Rs 50,000 from one relative, Rs 10,000 from another, Rs two lakh from someone else. It piled up to over Rs eight lakh. We haven’t been able to repay the loan, and still have a debt of Rs six lakh,” says Rajesh.
Reshma has kidney stones, and her mother has fluctuating blood pressure but still neither have been able to avail or afford treatment.
The family owned a small piece of farmland and sold it off to repay Reshma’s paternal aunt who allegedly threatened to act against them, says Reshma.
The family is left with a small patch of land – say the size of a kitchen garden in a city – on which they grow coriander and brinjal, enough for the family.
‘Can’t Go Back to the City’
When Reshma’s family left Chandigarh, they believed they would be back soon, and so left behind the stove and a gas cylinder, which now lies at a neighbour’s house in Chandigarh.
My father died, and then my father-in-law also passed away. My husband and I are the only children of our parents. We have no siblings, and our mothers are old. We can’t leave them here and work in the city.Reshma
The couple says that the chances of them returning to the city for livelihood are now bleak. “We work in the batai khet and if we are gone, who will do the work? Our old mothers or our children? Hum ab yaha bandhan mein phas gaye hain,” says Rajesh.
Naya Kheda village houses only 40-odd Pasi and Yadav families. Only a handful of people own land, and the others either do batai kheti or move to cities to work as wage labourers. “Many people walked back like we did but they have all returned to the city. We can’t. I don’t know how to make money here, and I don’t have a way to leave the village and go to the city either. Ab kuch jugaad nahi bacha hai,” says Rajesh.
For Reshma’s family, the free ration by the UP government is a big help.
We haven’t got any monetary help but the free ration has eased some burden. But my grandchildren are roaming around aimlessly, we haven’t even been able to afford books. This stress is eating me up. Is this our future?” asks Reshma’s mother Sheela.