Name: Pahlaj Patel
Hometown: Bhitiarwa, Bihar
Returned from: Manikapur, Uttar Pradesh
Pahlaj Patel moved to Manikapur, Uttar Pradesh from Bhitiarwa, Bihar. He was able to find work at a sugarcane farm. The lockdown left him without a stable source of income. He consulted a school teacher from the neighbourhood for the safest route back home. With him being one of the two earners in a family of ten, he prioritized the need of the family. After exhausting all possible methods due to safety concerns, Pahlaj and his coworkers purchased bicycles to ride to Bihar.
Interviewer: How did you first hear about the Covid-19 virus? Did it affect your life? What forced you to make the 420 k.m. journey?
Pahlaj Patel: I was walking home from work and heard the children on the street scream, “Chacha virus has come”. Out of curiosity, I asked the school-teacher from my building as she would be a reliable source. She strictly advised; maintain distance to avoid contamination. Amongst the five of us, we decided to isolate ourselves as much as possible. I have a feature phone not a smartphone, I do not use Facebook or WhatsApp. The teacher continued being my primary source of information about Covid-19, and debate chances to get home safe. Initially, she said the restrictions will subsequently ease. We patiently waited until the third extension on the 4th of May 2020.
Frustrated and helpless, we decided to buy a few bicycles and ride them back home. It was not easy to arrive at this decision as the teacher constantly opposed, we could not walk either because of the intolerable heat and duration it would take us. Also, there was no assurance of a proper meal. I decided to wait a few more days for the restriction to be relieved. There was no indication of it either.
The five of us purchased a bicycle each and began our journey. At first, the policemen stopped us for an inquiry about our hometown, occupation, current residence, and further demanded proof of approved permission to cross state borders. We were puzzled, although a phone call with our employer resolved that. While earlier to our departure, he firmly instructed us to quarantine first and not risk infecting our families. We cycled to Gorakhpur and rested on the side of the road that evening. The next morning, the trip continued. We made it to the quarantine centre that day itself. We had bicycles; it was satisfactory. I covered 420 k.m. in 36 hours. We rode continuously covering 100 k.m. a day, taking breaks in the evening. I reached back in pain.
There were eight of us in one room at the quarantine centre. Soap, shampoo, and other essentials were provided. For breakfast, I got chickpea and a dessert, some lunch, and then dinner. Once a day, the doctor would visit in the morning or afternoon hours. A total of 127 people were there. I had no complaints. Twelve days later, they asked us to leave. They advised us to maintain distance from others for an additional week. I isolated for eight days. On the ninth, I went looking for work.
Interviewer: How has your lifestyle changed since the lockdown?
Pahlaj Patel: I admit I am troubled by the virus, moreover, I am also helpless. My brother does not live with us, but he continues to contribute to the family’s expenses. If I am not able to secure a job, there will be no food on the plate. My mother worries too. She wishes I do not risk going out in this condition. I have the same answer for her; If I am not able to secure a job, there will be no food on the plate. I could not complete my education, my father passed when I was young.
I left my mother, sister, five brothers, wife, and two kids to look for work in Manikapur, U.P. Previously, I lived here, at home. It requires a minimum of Rs. 8,000 to purchase food. The family does not own a piece of farming land, just this land this house is built on. We cannot source food without having to pay for it. I was given food and shelter with a salary of Rs. 12,000 to 14,000 a month. It allowed me to send home Rs. 12,000 to 13,000. My brother works at a farm in the neighbourhood itself. He was able to earn Rs. 6,000 to 8,000 a month. I do not have many expectations from the government. I want them to do what they say.