A migrant worker in Ghaziabad takes a break. — AFP

A story of swollen feet: India's migrant workers and the physical toll of walking home during the lockdown

The journeys made by India's migrant workers in the past two months belong in the history books.
Published June 25, 2020

Across India, there are men and women with swollen feet. At a quarantine centre in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, there is 17-year-old Baliram Kumar, who had walked from Bangalore over 25 days.

"My feet are cut and scabbed," he said on the phone, a day after he reached his village. "I had shoes but what good are shoes after a while? I am so tired. My whole body is aching."

He had left in a group of 15, many of whom got faint and nauseous on the way. The journey turned them into nocturnal creatures. "We walked from 3am to 10am and rested during the day," he said.

At another quarantine centre in the village school, this time in Bihar’s Katihar district, there is 20-year-old Vinod Yadav. By the time he reached his village, in the sweltering late-May heat, it had been 27 days since he left Bangalore. Part of this journey was made on foot. When the heat grew unbearable during the day, they rested for four or five hours. Otherwise, they walked — all day and all night.

"I got a fever two or three times," he said. "I would buy medicines from the villages we were passing through and keep going. Sometimes, we rested in the villages for a day or two."

Their only shelter was the shade of trees. For food, they had carried sattu, a mix of ground pulses and cereals, which did not need cooking, just some water and salt. They also had some ground chickpeas, eaten with salt, chili and turmeric. "If we found any shops open, we would eat there," said Yadav.

In Rajasthan’s Banswara district, there is 32-year-old Dasharath Yadav, who says he could not walk for days after he got home from Ahmedabad in March. "For 12 days, I had to massage my feet, bathe them in water with neem leaves and apply Moov ointment," he said.

He reckons he walked about 12 hours that frantic night in March, soon after a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus was declared. There was no food on the way and by the end he was limping. But it was a race against time. He had heard the state border between Gujarat and Rajasthan was going to close. He had to make it before that.

A migrant woman, travelling in a group, rests on a footpath on May 14.
A migrant woman, travelling in a group, rests on a footpath on May 14.

Forgotten bodies

With the nationwide lockdown, declared at four hours’ notice on March 24, the BJP government drew a cordon around the bodies it wished to protect. It halted trains and public transport, pulling up the drawbridges to guard the chosen — those who could afford to stay in. On the bodies of those outside this charmed circle, the lockdown wrought havoc.

They were left without protection against the virus. Most faced hunger or homelessness if they could not work. Vinod Yadav, who did plaster work for houses in Bangalore, had not been paid in weeks when he decided to walk. "We came back crying," he said. Before lockdown, Kumar had made INR300 a day painting houses but now even this meagre income was choked off.

Mostly migrants, they were cut off from the support systems of their homes and villages. So a large number set off on foot, covering fantastic distances — 800, 1,000, 1,500 kilometres. In the initial weeks after lockdown was declared, the government looked the other way, refusing to acknowledge these journeys.

Even after it allowed interstate travel in May, flagging off Shramik trains to transport migrant workers, getting a seat remained a bureaucratic nightmare. Train services were erratic, with long delays and mysterious diversions. While the government advertised the Vande Bharat Mission to fly back Indians stranded abroad, hundreds camped out at railway stations hoping for a train. Well into May, many were choosing to walk.

As men and women set out, children in their arms, belongings balanced on their head, comparisons were drawn to the migrant caravans that crossed borders during Partition. Those journeys, made at the violent birth of two countries, were fraught with other terrors. But as images of walking migrants fill news feeds and TV screens, it grows clear that this, too, is a moment that belongs in history books. It belongs with the great journeys triggered by war, famine or natural calamity, with stories of exceptional suffering and injustice.

Folded into these epic tragedies is a raw, specific experience — the toll that walking such long distances takes on the human body.

Walking home

According to a database that keeps count of non-virus deaths during the lockdown, at least 46 people have died of exhaustion from walking or standing in line so far. Some, quite literally, would not have had the energy to carry on.

It takes 60 to 70 calories to be able to walk a single kilometre, explained Yogesh Jain, a doctor who started Jan Swasthya Sahyog, a low-cost health programme for tribal and rural communities in Bilaspur. "If you have one large meal of 600 calories, you would consume that by walking just eight to 10 kilometres. And these are calculations that have been done in 25 degrees centigrade temperature, when you are not undernourished, lifting weights or stressed."

Walking migrants covered much more than 8 km to 10 km a day, often with no food. As the months wore on, temperatures soared to 40 degrees and more, especially in northern India and the dry regions of the Deccan.

The human body is not meant to walk more than a few hours a day, explained Jain. As you keep walking, the mechanisms to produce energy slow down. Metabolites, the intermediate products of metabolism, accumulate in the body. These are small molecules which are yet to be broken down to produce energy. "Tiring muscles produce metabolites such as lactic acid, which leads to a feeling of fatigue," he said.

The production of glucose, the final substance that is metabolised to release energy, falls in tired bodies. "If your blood glucose falls short and there is not enough glucose to run your system, it would cause you to feel drowsy, pass out and die of starvation," said Jain.

As you walk with the sun beating down on your back, your body dries up and its temperature soars. In other words, you suffer from a heat stroke. Dehydration, or water loss, causes electrolyte imbalance, driving down sodium levels, which can lead to vomiting.

In May, pictures of 24-year-old Amrit Kumar dying in his friend Mohammad Saiyub's arms went viral on social media. They had been dumped from the truck carrying them back to their village in Madhya Pradesh. Kumar had developed breathing problems and other passengers suspected he had Covid-19. With the help of passers-by, Saiyub managed to rush him to a district hospital where doctors who treated him said he had a high temperature and was vomiting. Saiyub was later told his friend had died of dehydration.

Apart from heat and fatigue, there is the constant friction of asphalt under your feet. There are bruises, oozing wounds, pre-existing conditions that conspire with the scorching sun.

A migrant worker in Ghaziabad feeds his newborn baby as he walks on a highway. — Reuters
A migrant worker in Ghaziabad feeds his newborn baby as he walks on a highway. — Reuters

Echoes of the 1942 long march

While the lockdown migration invited comparisons with Partition, it may bear closer resemblance to another journey — the Long March from Burma in 1942. In the thick of the Second World War, the Japanese bombed the city of Rangoon — present-day Yangon — in Burma, then a British colony. By the spring of 1942, the British were in retreat, leaving behind a large Indian population to fend for itself.

This Indian diaspora had settled in Burma over decades, filling the ranks of the bureaucracy, manning the ports, trading in rice, wood and silk. According to the 1931 Census, there were over a million Indians in Burma.

As with the lockdown today, the colonial government’s evacuation plan, such as it was, had no room for the poor. Steamships and aircraft leaving Burma were reserved first for Europeans, then for those Indians who could afford tickets. Eventually, these stopped altogether.

While the current government mulls over how to keep poor migrants in cities to help reboot the economy, the colonial government wanted them to stay on in Rangoon to keep the docks and the municipality running. When Japanese bombs hit Rangoon in December 1941, fleeing Indian workers were encouraged to turn back, writes historian Hugh Tinker. They were promised work, security in government camps and evacuation, should the need arise. None of these promises were kept.

Those left behind had to negotiate perilous river crossings and walk hundreds of miles through jungles and mountains to reach towns in North East India.

Government efforts were initially directed at containing the flood of refugees pouring into the princely state of Manipur, Tinker writes. There was little government relief on the way, the priority being military mobilisation to meet the approaching Japanese. What camps existed became hotspots for epidemic diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, cholera, malaria.

As the monsoon arrived, the journey became harder. A British officer who met migrants entering Ledo in Assam describes exhaustion, emaciation and disease — "all social sense is lost… they suffer from bad nightmares and their delirium is a babble of rivers and crossings, of mud and corpses".

Few survivor accounts remain. But Narasimha Ramamurthy, who was 13 when he trekked from Burma into Nagaland and Assam, recounted a gruelling routine when interviewed by the Independent in 2012 — start at seven in the morning, stop to cook rice porridge at noon, then walk till six in the evening and finally, more rice porridge for dinner. The only help on the way came from Naga people who carried children through difficult terrain for "a very small sum". Ramamurthy recalled a man who left his children to die on the road as he had no food to give them and no strength to carry them.

Other travellers recall "Naga sores", which started as a blister before they became about five inches in diameter and half an inch thick, filled with pus and attracted maggots. When Ramamurthy’s father finally returned, his skin was peeling and he could barely speak.

Tinker estimates between 10,000 and 50,000 people died on the long march.

A migrant worker in Ghaziabad. — AFP
A migrant worker in Ghaziabad. — AFP

'You just walk'

"There is no significant historical lesson to be drawn from the narrative which follows, except the lesson of endurance," begins Tinker in his essay on the long march. But should these harrowing journeys be recorded as stories of endurance?

Jain, speaking of the lockdown march, warns against measuring human misery in physical terms. Fascist regimes in the past, he points out, had studied how much the human body could endure before it broke. Typically, these experiments were conducted on dehumanised minorities.

Inscribed in every battered body is a story of institutional failure. But Gargi Goyel, a doctor in Rajasthan's Udaipur district, is indignant when asked about the physical toll of the lockdown march. To talk about the march as exceptional, according to her, was to forget the way systemic negligence routinely ravaged the bodies of the poor.

Many of her patients in rural Rajasthan walked 10 to 15 kilometres a day to reach her clinic, Goyel said, one man walked 55 kilometres to see his ailing brother. Most manual labour requires vast reserves of physical strength. The bodies of workers in Indian factories, building sites and workshops have been shaped by disease and physical hardship. "They are already malnourished," said Goyel. "Already their bodies are trained to deal with minimal food and do strenuous activity."

Setting out to walk hundreds of kilometres, according to Goyel, was an act of quiet confidence born from a lifetime of suffering. "They’re brave — they know their body can do it," she said. "They don’t want to wait for the government because the government has done nothing for them."

Those who walked, however, do not dwell on physical endurance or government failures. What they remember first is the instinct to survive. Ramamurthy, recalling the march of 1942, said, "It was challenging — but you have no other way to go, it is a question of survival of the fittest. You can’t think about it. You just walk."

Dasharath Yadav, describing a journey made nearly eight decades later, used much the same language: "You have the 'josh' to keep going at the time — you keep thinking when will I get home, when will I get home."

This article originally appeared on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.