Tens of thousands of daily wage migrant workers suddenly found themselves without a job or a source of income when India announced a closure on March 24.
Overnight, the cities they helped build and manage seemed to have turned their backs on them, the trains and buses that should have brought them home suspended.
So, with the imminent fear of hunger, men, women and children were forced to start difficult journeys to their villages – bike rides or carriage rides in tuk-tuks, trucks, tankers and trucks. milk.
For many, walking was the only option. Some have traveled several hundred kilometers, while others have traveled more than a thousand to return home.
They weren’t always alone – some had young children and others had pregnant women, and the lives they had forged in their rag bags.
Many have never succeeded. Here, the BBC tells the story of a handful of hundreds of people who lost their lives on their way home.
Sanju Yadav and daughter Nandini
Sanju Yadav and her husband, Rajan, and their two children – Nitin and Nandini – arrived in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, ten years ago with their meager business and dreams of a better future.
She hoped her children would thrive as they grew up in the city.
“It wasn’t like she didn’t like village life,” said Rajan. “She just knew that Mumbai offered better opportunities for all of us. “
Indeed, it was Sanju who encouraged Rajan to push himself.
“I used to work an eight hour shift in a factory. Sanju motivated me to do something more, so we bought a food cart and started selling snacks from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
“She pushed me to think big, she said having our business was much better than a job. The work had a fixed salary, but the business allowed us to grow. “
Two years ago, all the hard work seemed to pay off. Rajan used his savings and a bank loan to buy a tuk-tuk. The rental vehicle brought in more money for Sanju and his family.
But then came the coronavirus.
The couple first heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk about the virus on TV on March 19. A full three-week lockout was announced less than a week later.
They used most of their savings to pay rent, pay off the loan, and buy groceries in March and April. They were hoping the city would reopen in May, but the lockout was again extended.
For lack of money and options, they decided to return to their village in Jaunpur district, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. They asked for tickets on the special trains that ran for the migrants, but were unlucky for a week.
Desperate and exhausted, they decided to embark on the 1500 km long journey in their tuk-tuk. The family of four left Mumbai on May 9.
Rajan would drive from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. He then rested during the day and by 6:00 p.m. the family was back on the road until 11:00 p.m. “We ate the dry food we had packed and slept on the sidewalks. The prospect of being safe in our village has allowed us to continue, “he said.
But in the early hours of May 12 – just 200 km from their village – a truck hit the tuk-tuk from behind.
Sanju and Nandini died instantly. Rajan and Nitin escaped with minor injuries.
“It all ended so quickly,” said Rajan. “We were so close to our village. We were so excited. But I have nothing left – just a big void. “
He says he can’t help but think of the train tickets that never came. “I wish I got the tickets. I wish I had never started the trip … I wish I was not poor. “
Lallu Ram Yadav
Lallu Ram Yadav used to meet his cousin Ajay Kumar every Sunday to remember the village he had left for Mumbai a decade earlier, in search of a better life for his wife and six children.
For 10 years, the 55-year-old had worked as a security guard, 12 hours a day, six days a week.
But his hard work was of little value once the foreclosure began, and the cousins both found that their savings were quickly used up.
Lallu Ram called his family to tell them they were coming home – at least he would now be able to spend time with his children, he said.
So Lallu Ram and Ajay Kumar joined the desperate race to find a way to the village of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, about 1,400 km away.
But the price asked by the truckers turned out to be too much. Instead, inspired by the migrants returning home on television, they packed small bags and started the journey on foot with four friends.
They covered about 400 km in the first 48 hours – hitchhiking by truck along the way. But the journey was more difficult than they had imagined.
“It was really hot and we would tire quickly,” said Ajay Kumar. “The leather shoes we wore were extremely uncomfortable. “
They all had blisters on their feet after walking for a day, but giving up was not an option.
One evening, Lallu Ram began to complain of breathing difficulties. They had just entered Madhya Pradesh – they still had a long way to go, but decided to rest for a while before trying to start again.
Lallu Ram never woke up. When they took him to a nearby hospital, they were told that he died of a heart attack, triggered by exhaustion and fatigue.
They did not know what to do with the body. An ambulance would take five to eight hours to reach them.
The group had around 15,000 rupees ($ 199; £ 163) between them – half the amount needed to hire a truck. But a driver agreed to take the rest of the payment later. And that’s how they brought the body home.
Lallu Ram could not keep his promise to spend more time with his children.
“The family’s only breadwinner has disappeared,” says Ajay Kumar. “No one helped us. My cousin didn’t have to die – but it was a choice between hunger and the long journey.
“We poor people often have to choose the best out of many bad choices. It didn’t work for my cousin this time. It rarely works for the poor like him. “
Sagheer and Sahib Ansari were good tailors. They never had a hard time finding work in Delhi’s booming garment factories – until the closure.
Within days, they lost their jobs. The brothers expected things to return to normal in a few weeks and stayed in their tiny one-room house.
When their money ran out, they asked family members for help. When the lockout was extended in May, their patience ran out.
“We could not have asked the family for more money. We were supposed to help them, not take money from them, “said Sahib.
They were waiting in line for government food distribution. But, said Sahib, it was never enough and they were always hungry.
The brothers therefore discussed the idea of returning to their village in the Motihari district of Bihar state, 1,200 km from Delhi.
They and their friends decided to buy used bikes, but could only afford six for eight people. So, they decided that they would all take turns to take the passengers.
They left Delhi in the early hours of May 5. It was a hot day and the group felt tired every 10 km.
“Our knees hurt, but we continued to pedal. We hardly had a good meal and that made it harder to pedal, “says Sahib.
After driving for five days, the group reached Lucknow – the capital of Uttar Pradesh. It had been two days since they had had a good meal and they survived mostly on puffed rice.
“We were all very hungry. We sat on a road divider to eat because there was practically no traffic, “he said.
But a car came out of nowhere, hitting the barrier and hitting Sagheer. He died in hospital a few hours later.
“My world has collapsed,” says Sahib. “I had no idea what I was going to say to his two children and his wife.
“He loved home cooked food and looked forward to it. He died without eating properly for days. “
Sahib finally returned home with his brother’s body, brought in by an ambulance. But he could not cry for long with his family because he was placed in a quarantine center immediately after the burial.
“I don’t know who to blame for his death – coronavirus, hunger or poverty. I understood one thing: I will never leave my village. I will earn less money but at least I will stay alive. “
Balram and his friend, Naresh Singh
Jaikrishna Kumar, 17, regrets having encouraged his father Balram to return home after the lockout began.
Balram was from a village in Khagadia district of Bihar, but was working in Gujarat – one of the states hardest hit by coronavirus – when most of India closed in March.
He and his friend Naresh Singh, a mobile phone tower maintenance worker, were both working hard so that their sons who returned to Bihar could have a better future. Balram wanted Jaikrishna to go to university, Nikram wanted his sons to become government officials.
They started their journey on foot, but about 400 km away, the police helped them and others to get into a truck.
The “journey” implied that they were all perched precariously on top of the cargo – a common sight on Indian highways.
But this time, the driver lost control of the city of Dausa, in the state of Rajasthan, driving the truck into a tree.
Naresh and Balram died in the accident.
Now, Jaikrishna Kumar says that he will probably have to stop his studies and find a job to support his family.
“The accident killed my father and my dreams of going to school. I wish there was another way. I don’t like the idea of going to a city to work, but what other option do I have?
“My father wanted me to break the cycle of poverty. I don’t know how to do without him. “