19, Jun 2020 | CJP Team
43-year-old Laxman Prasad, has been living and working in Mumbai for the past 27 years. He has lived in different parts of the city, but moved with his family to Kalina, Santacruz 15-years ago. He worked as an auto rickshaw driver and had bought his vehicle just two years ago, on a five-year-loan. Laxman and his family packed their bags and he drove them across the country, in this autorickshaw on May 10. They reached May 15 and went into quarantine for the next. Once that was over with, he called up the CJP team to inform us he was fine.
He was feeling very nostalgic about the city which he has spent a large chunk of his life in and recalled his early days as a migrant from Jharkhand. “Before I started driving an auto rickshaw, I used to work as a waiter in a hotel. Initially I used to stay with other migrants from Jharkhand but five years ago I brought my wife and children over an we lived in Kalina,” says Prasad for whom his kids are his pride and joy, “my elder son studies in class 8, my daughter studies in class 5 and my younger son studies in class 2.” The children study in a school run by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
After the lockdown, many migrant labourers were forced to choose between two extremely difficult options; continue to stay in expensive cities where expenses kept mounting and income sources dried up, or go back home to their families in their villages, but face an uncertain economic future. While CJP has supplied rations and essentials to thousands of migrant labourers who both stayed on and some of those who left, our challenge is now, in a post lockdown solution, help find short and long term solutions, with them. Our series Migrant Diaries brings to you stories of the ordeals they were forced to face as they took an arduous journey back home, and some stories of those who stayed back. Please donate now to help our migrant brothers and sisters. CJP hopes to evolve collective solutions and programmes with them, in the coming weeks.
Prasad’s parents and three younger brothers stayed back in the village, “We are seven brothers, two of us drive auto rickshaws, two work as waiters.” Prasad would earn almost Rs 25,000 per month, but the expenditures would drain his pocket fast, “I paid Rs 6,000 as my room rent, and had an EMI of Rs 6,000 to repay the autorickshaw’s loan. I managed to send around Rs 3,000 back home and whatever remained was used to buy ration and meet our daily expenses.” He tried his best to save a small amount each month. All that changed when the sudden lockdown was imposed. The earnings stopped, but the expenses did not.
“This lockdown has cost me Rs 60,000 to 80,000 already, but we cannot blame anyone, this is a situation which we all are facing,” he said, adding that it was the government that should have planned ahead for the poor citizens. He felt let down by the authorities and felt he could not depend on them anymore. “The government had not made any plans for us poor people, that’s why I didn’t depend on the government and decided to drive my auto from Mumbai to get home to my village in Jharkhand,” he recalls the longest drive he has undertaken in his beloved vehicle.
Like many others, Prasad thought the lockdown was announced for a limited time only, “I didn’t think it would be extended for such a long time.” Even under the first lockdown Prasad ferried around a few passengers who were out for emergencies, but when the police started beating and slapping fines he decided not to risk it anymore. “We live hand to mouth, and slowly it started getting difficult for us. In the initial phase we used up our savings to buy ration and essential items,” he says but that money was over soon and the crisis began. This is when the CJP Team reached Prasad’s neighbourhood with ration kits. “I am thankful to CJP who provided us with rations that lasted for 15-20 days. There were some others in Kalina who were distributing cooked food. We used to stand in a queue for food daily,” he remembers those days as some of the worst he has spent in Mumbai. “We did not like standing in a queue for food, but we had no other option,” he says.
Survival was at stake and Prasad didn’t want to go back to the village, “because in Mumbai I feel we can survive somehow.” But his family back home was worried, “They were constantly telling me to make some arrangements to return to the village.”
As the number of Covid-19 cases rose steadily so did Prasad’s stress level. “We live in slums and I was also worried for my family, especially my children. The volunteers from CJP had called me to inform me about the Emergency Travel form. I along with my friends and their families filled the emergency travel form. I even followed up with the police station but they said they will call once the train schedule was confirmed,” recalls Prasad.
No such calls came, “After waiting for five days I and a few other drivers decided to go home by our own auto rickshaw. We left Mumbai on May 10. We drove through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and finally reached Jharkhand on May 15.” At Madhya Pradesh a thermal screening was done and they paid Rs 25 as toll tax too. “We used to travel from morning to afternoon, take a lunch break, and then again travel till night. This continued for the next five days,” he says he was the only one driving and was thankful that there were people distributing food, snacks, water to the labourers returning home. “We managed with that and sometimes had food at dhabas and paid. I spent Rs 12,000 on petrol and Rs 2,000 on food. I had no other choice but to go home so I had requested my brother to send me Rs 15,000,” Prasad says this money helped him take his family home safely.
“After reaching Rourkela which on the Odisha-Jharkhand border another round of thermal screening was done, and then we reached Kohlu, Jharkhand which is our village. We were kept in quarantine in the Panchayat School for 14 days. We were provided tea, biscuit and a banana each for breakfast, for lunch we got sabji, dal and rice and for dinner we got dal and rice,” Prasad does not dwell on the taste of the food, he was grateful to be fed.
However, he remembers that many others in quarantine had asked their families to get food from home because the quality of the meals served at the school was not good. “We didn’t trouble our family because my mother is old and it would have been difficult for her to cook for five of us. We managed the food which was provided. After 14 days, another thermal screening was done and then we were told to go home.”
Prasad says the quarantine was a struggle too but the family had no choice. The children are never going to forget this experience he says, “But I am glad that I have reached my village and I am with my entire family, the situation here is first class and we no need to beg in front of anyone for food.” He is an optimistic man and is waiting for the situation to get normal, “Then I will go to Mumbai again, because now I am used to working in Mumbai. There, I can earn Rs 25,000 per month which will be difficult here in Jharkhand.”
He is also not going to blame anyone for the crisis, “I don’t want to complain about anything, because the situation is so difficult that even the government is struggling. People are doing their best to survive, some travelled on trucks, by some buses, some even walked. I was lucky to have my own vehicle. I am happy to be back here and now I don’t have any tension, because we all are together if anything happens people are there to support you and take care of you.”
His faith in humanity soars, but his wife is upset and worried about the impending financial crisis, “I am feeling very bad that all our savings have got over in this lockdown, whatever was left we spent on travelling back to home. While on the highway, I was scared of accidents because travel by auto rickshaw was not easy and there were big trucks driving beside us,” she says. She too is grateful that people shared food along the way. “We had sufficient food during our journey, because people were distributing food, and I had even carried biscuits, and some fruits with me. Now everything feels fine as we have reached home, that is the major relief.”