But he hasn’t stopped walking. He could not.
The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway from home.
Having no way of surviving in the cities and India’s vast, largely closed rail network, many made the extraordinary decision to return thousands of miles to their families.
Chouhan knew the risks. But on May 12 he decided to challenge India’s strict blockade laws and begin the 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) walk from the technology center of Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
He had hoped to hitchhike largely, but with the police checking the trucks for illegal immigrants, the drivers were asking for taxes beyond Chouhan’s budget. For 10 days, he was supposed to dodge police checkpoints, survive on tea and biscuits, and walk on aching feet.
“I don’t think I can forget this journey through my life,” he says. “It will always bring back memories of sadness and anxiety.”
A vacation at 3 in the morning
Chouhan moved to Bangalore last December to work as a bricklayer on a construction site.
In his hometown of Tribhuvan Nagar, on the border of India with Nepal, he earned 250 rupees ($ 3.30) per day. In Bengaluru, it could double.
He and his brother, who worked in another state, sent home around 14,000 rupees ($ 185) per month – enough to support their family of 11, including Chouhan’s two young children and his elderly parents, who lived in a thatched roof house set in a sugar cane and wheat fields. His grandson Arvind Thakur joined Chouhan in the city as soon as he turned 14, the legal age to work in India.
When Chouhan, his grandson and nine other migrants from their hometown had decided to leave Bengaluru, the country had been closed for weeks. Some rail services resumed on May 3, allowing for interstate travel, but are subject only to a laborious approval process.
Normally Chouhan pays 300 rupees ($ 4) for the 48-hour return journey in the lowest transportation class, but during the pandemic that price went up to 1,200 rupees ($ 15.90). State police have been instructed to sell tickets and maintain order in police stations full of desperate travelers to return home.
Bengaluru police said CNN resorted to using batons to free the crowds at the end of the day’s sales. “We have been beaten many times. Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we can’t feel pain,” says Chouhan.
After spending five days outside a police station trying to get a ticket, Chouhan and his fellow villagers decided to walk. They dared not tell their families.
“My father is severely diabetic and would have an impact on him and my mother if they found out that we were returning home without money,” says Chouhan. “They would cry until we return. We all decided to tell our families that we were waiting for a train.”
He put four shirts, a towel and a sheet in his backpack, along with a couple of bottles of water. There were 170 rupees in his wallet ($ 2.25).
At 3 am on May 12, Chouhan sneaked out of a single room shed he shared with 10 other people and made his first step home.
When Chouhan left, police checkpoints had been erected all over the city. The authorities had not anticipated the race for migrants who wanted to leave and made it clear that the registration only applied to those “blocked”, not to migrant workers. Unauthorized interstate travel was prohibited.
As the Chouhan group crossed the city, they were picked up by the police and taken to the station where their boss – who never wanted them to leave – would pick them up. While migrant workers have rights under Indian law, they are often unaware of and exploited by employers.
At noon, police officers changed shift and the group remained unattended. “We ended up there,” says Chouhan. “We ran for about two kilometers until we felt safe.”
Following the railroad tracks to avoid the police on the roads, the group crossed the night, with other migrants, until they entered Andhra Pradesh at one in the morning.
After 46 hours, they had crossed the first of five state borders they would meet. They had traveled only 74 miles (120 kilometers).
Hope, solidarity and hunger
The group of 11 migrants from Chouhan had nine smartphones between them and they used Google Maps to navigate their path. They used the flashing blue dot to see if they were walking roughly in the right direction.
To conserve battery power, only one person would turn on the phone at a time and took turns sharing the GPS. Along the way there were few places where they could charge their phones.
The first part of their journey traced National Highway 44 – a long open road that divides India in two, running across the country from Tamil Nadu in the south to Srinagar in the north.
This road would take them to Hyderabad, the city of 10 million people who were to be the first major landmark of their trip – and where they had heard that hitchhiking would be possible for the rest of the way home.
While temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walked about 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour, taking a short rest every two hours. It aimed to complete around 110 kilometers per day. “There was a temptation to rest or take a nap,” he says. “But we were aware that it was more difficult to walk every time we sat down.”
Along the way, they would see other groups of migrants heading to the poor western states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which supply Indian cities with much of their migrant workforce.
On the road, Chouhan says that traditional divisions of caste and religion – deeply rooted faults in rural hinterlands of India – have disappeared. His group of 11 went through various castes from the same village. There were Brahmins and Thakurs, which are considered higher castes, and Chamars, which are among the lowest. On the long walk home, it made no difference.
When Chouhan’s slipper broke on the second day, the group raised their funds to buy him a new shoe.
But by the third day, they hadn’t eaten completely since they left Bangalore. Each person had started with between 150 rupees ($ 2) and 300 rupees ($ 4). Instead, they would buy 20 cookies for 100 rupees ($ 1.32) and ration them during the day. “We had to save every rupee in case we needed it on the trip,” says Chouhan.
“Our stomach would grumble. We would eat a biscuit to shut him up. We were hungry, but we had no choice. We had to save every rupee in an emergency.”
Around 8 o’clock that day, they stopped on the side of National Highway 44, thinking of resting for an hour. Eight slept, oblivious to the noise of the highway noises and the burning trucks.
When they woke up at 4:00 pm Hyderabad was 250 miles (400 kilometers) away and a state border away.
With Hyderabad in his sights, Chouhan went through the night. But when his group reached the city of Kurnool around 10 am on the fourth day, a police checkpoint blocked the bridge which they had to cross to reach the city.
Chouhan saw a stream of migrants following a winding path along the river and followed them. About 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, hundreds crossed the river on foot.
Chouhan and the others hesitated: they could not swim. “Men, women, children, elders were crossing the river,” he says. “(We thought) if they can do it, because we can’t.”
After a long and hot summer, the river was only 1 meter deep. Chouhan carried the bag over his head and one of the tallest men in their party carried his 14-year-old grandson.
“We were so scared that we were blown away. But we kept telling ourselves that this was the only way back home. This 100m stretch was perhaps the most frightened on this trip,” says Chouhan.
Back on the highway, truck drivers asked for up to 2,500 rupees ($ 33) per person to take them to Uttar Pradesh. “They told us that if the police caught them, they would have to pay big penalties. They didn’t want to take the risk without getting paid in return. We had no choice but to walk,” says Chouhan.
But others were more charitable. An old man offered them their first full meal in four days. A truck driver took pity on their feet with blisters and offered them a ride. He carried rice across the border and slept in jute bags while driving them to the outskirts of Hyderabad.
After crossing the border between Telangana and Maharashtra, they had another stroke of luck: a villager took them to a school where NGOs gave food and water to migrant workers.
More than 300 migrants were eating when the police arrived.
“They started mistreating us,” says Chouhan. “They said we weren’t following social distances and that we had to sit 10 feet apart. They tried to disperse the crowd and told the organizers to stop distributing food.”
But the migrants have passed the police. “We started shouting. Some migrant workers even started pushing the police and the police withdrew to their jeep,” he says. “We were angry. They (the police) don’t help us at all – they don’t help people help us.”
Pandemic and death on the roads
There is little data on how urban worker migration has affected the spread of coronavirus in India. Returning migrants have tested positive for the disease in large numbers in many states, but it is not known if they contracted Covid-19 in the city or collected it along the way.
On the fifth day of their trip, the group had a fear of health as they approached the central Indian city of Nagpur.
Rajesh’s grandson, Arvind Thakur, had a fever. “I got scared,” says Thakur. “I don’t understand anything about coronavirus. But adults have told me that it can’t be coronavirus as it comes first as a cold and cough. I only had a fever. They gave me tablets and I felt better.”
On the highway, the pandemic was a low priority – there were more urgent health concerns: hunger, thirst, fatigue and pain.
As of May 24, it had recorded 667 deaths, including 244 migrant workers who died on their way home: from hunger, fatigue or rail and road accidents.
“In Bengaluru, I was afraid of this disease,” says Chouhan. “Now, all we wanted to do was go home. It wasn’t in our hands if we got sick on this trip.
“The moment we left Bengaluru, we left our fate to the gods.”
The rush home
Under the black night sky and the thick canopies of the wooded areas of central India that once inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The Jungle Book”, Chouhan crossed the Maharasthra-Madhya Pradesh border. It was the sixth day.
In Madhya Pradesh, tractors, buses and trucks helped the group during the day, and villagers in the hills provided them with food and even a tanker for swimming.
Two days later, they reached the border of their home state, Uttar Pradesh. The house was only 350 kilometers away. “We forgot our pain. It felt like we were already at home,” says Chouhan.
As they passed Prayagraj, a central site in Hindu spiritualism where the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati converge, Chouhan allowed himself a rare moment of joy.
Joining thousands of Hindus, he took a dip in the cold waters and said a prayer for the group to arrive home early.
The next day, with the ninth walk, they reached the state capital, Lucknow.
The house was only 80 miles (128 kilometers) away. Chouhan bought a meal for the first time since the beginning of the trip and called his family. “We told them that we had come by train to Uttar Pradesh. We would be home in one day,” he says.
The closer they got home, the more tired Chouhan says he feels.
On day 10, in Gonda, 18 miles (30 kilometers) from their village, Thakur’s body surrendered. His face fell first into the asphalt. The group revived him by pouring water on his face.
So, just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from home, they met the police. Too weak to run, they allowed officers to quarantine them.
In the end they were at home.
Home and scarred
The scars of walking along India’s backbone made their bodies hard.
Chouhan claims to have lost 10 kilograms (22 pounds) on the trip. He says his feet have swelled so much that it is a struggle to go to the bathroom in the school where he should be quarantined for 14 days.
However, quarantine is badly applied in Uttar Pradesh.
On May 24, Chouhan claims that his family was allowed to visit him in quarantine.
His children threw themselves towards him. And when they hugged each other tightly, Chouhan said he had forgotten his pain. He was allowed to visit his family in their home and go to the pharmacy to buy medicine, which he took out loans to pay for.
Seeing his thatched-roof house where his big family sleeps, he tells him, reminds him how his work in Bengaluru has supported his family.
Yet on May 25, the tragedy struck. Salman, thirty years old, one of 11 who walked from Bengaluru, was bitten by a snake a few days after arriving home and leaving the quarantine.
He died on the way to the hospital.
Chouhan is mourning the tragedy. However, he realizes that poverty in his village, the hunger of his family and the growing debt of their medical care mean that he must eventually return to the city to work.
“When I left Bengaluru, I decided never to return,” he says. “The best I can do is wait a few weeks to see if the blockage is loose before I go out on business again.”
Design and graphics by Jason Kwok. Curated by Jenni Marsh and Hilary Whiteman.
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