A photograph of a migrant laborer, his face contorted with anguish as he sits on the roadside in Delhi speaking to his wife about their sick baby boy, has come to symbolize the ordeal of India’s daily wage workers; penniless, and unable to get home to their families because of strict lockdown policies.
Rampukar Pandit, a 38-year-old construction worker in the Indian capital, had heard that his 11-month-old son was seriously unwell.
With no public transport to reach his home in Begusarai in Bihar, 1,200km away, he started walking.
He reached Nizamuddin Bridge where he, exhausted and hungry, could not go further.
Atul Yadav, a photographer with the Press Trust of India, was heading home from work on Tuesday last week when he saw Pandit, sobbing his heart out.
Pandit refused his offer of biscuits and water, saying food would “choke” him because he could not eat while his son was unwell.
“He was so emotional I had to stop shooting. He had been sitting on the road for three days,” Yadav said, adding that Pandit told him that the laborers felt like not belonging to any country.
All he wanted was to go home and see his son, Yadav added.
Later that evening, Pandit reached a nearby police station. He was still waiting for the police to help when a group of well-wishers, having seen Yadav’s tweet about Pandit, arrived in the area and managed to find him at the station.
By now, he was full of grief.
His wife, Bimal Devi, had just called to say their son had died.
One of the well-wishers paid for and arranged for his train ticket home.
“He wept with gratitude at strangers helping him,” Yadav said.
Yadav’s photograph illustrates the anguish of millions of migrant laborers in India who are desperate to get home to their families.
After waiting in vain for the government to provide them with transport — only belatedly some trains are now being laid on for them — laborers have embarked on astonishing odysseys, from cities all over the country, journeys that have left Indians transfixed and distressed.
Whether by truck, auto-rickshaw, bicycle or on foot, they have been heading out under their own steam, some making journeys of nearly 1,000km to reach home.
Hunger, thirst and the scorching heat of summer in India are slowing them down. Some have died of exhaustion and sunstroke.
Last week a group of 16 who fell asleep on a railway line they had believed was not being used were killed by a freight train.
“If I am to die, I want to die with my parents,” said a daily wage laborer leaving Indore, a city in Madhya Pradesh.
“Even if I starve in the village, I will never come back. My children needed medicines and food and I wasn’t able to do anything,” an auto-rickshaw driver fleeing Mumbai said.
Every day the exodus continues.
Residents of Dharavi slum in Mumbai are fleeing in their thousands every day. With living conditions that make it almost impossible to escape the contagion and more than 1,100 confirmed cases of COVID-19, many people feel they are sitting ducks.
Yadav has been documenting their plight for the past few weeks, ever since India’s lockdown began on March 25.
He has been taken aback at the response to his image of Pandit. It has been splashed all over Indian news outlets and social media.
He is getting calls from California and New York, both about his photograph and from people who want to help Pandit.
“In my career so far, this is the photograph that has best shown one person’s pain,” Yadav said.
Pandit reached Bihar on Wednesday last week and was quarantined. There, he developed a temperature and headaches and was sent to hospital, where he has tested negative for COVID-19.
He was not surprised about the government’s inaction toward workers separated from their families, Pandit said.
“I am a nobody, I’m like an ant, my life doesn’t matter. The government is only concerned with filling the stomachs of the rich,” Pandit added.
He can not wait to reach his home and his family. Once there, he plans never to return to Delhi or to go to any other city for work, even though he has no land or any other means of support.
“However I manage, I will manage. My family and my parents will be with me. That’s enough for me,” Pandit said.
If Pandit does ever return to Delhi, it will be to meet the woman who paid for his ticket and booked it for him.
Before leaving, she gave him her address lest he needed further help to get home.
“I would like to meet her again. She was my angel,” he said.
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