Lucknow: Sruthin Lal and Dibyaudh Das are two young journalists who made an extraordinary effort to report the current migrant crisis in India caused by the sudden imposition of the nationwide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24.
The duo cycled from the national capital to Lucknow to understand what the migrants were going through. It took about 10 days for them to complete the journey. NewsClick met with the journalists to find out about their experience. Excerpts of the interview are given below.
How did this idea of cycling to Lucknow come to your mind?
Sruthin: This was a random idea which clicked in Dibayaudh’s mind. He called me one afternoon and asked can we do this? I liked the idea, but I asked for some time from him to ponder over it. In two hours, I pitched this idea to our chief editor and it was approved.
Dibayaudh: For the first three weeks (since the lockdown), we had been only getting second hand information about the migrants walking thousands of miles in order to reach home. But I wanted to report first hand accounts of the struggle these people were facing to reach home. The entire planning, sources gathering, and even pushing me while on the journey was done by Sruthin. Otherwise, I would have been sleeping till noon on the very next day of starting the journey, as I was totally exhausted after riding 70 kilometres.
What challenges did you face and did everything go as planned?
D: We had not expected that it would be so hot and were not prepared for the inclement weather conditions. We faced heat waves, dust storms and sometimes rain while we were pedalling to Lucknow from Delhi. The most struggling stretch was from Kanpur to Lucknow as it was a bit more lengthy and the weather also played a spoilsport.
What was the most painful story of migrants you encountered?
S: In Mathura, I was having tea at a roadside stall when a woman asked who we were and what was the purpose of our journey. When I told her that we were journalists, she asked us to come to her home. This was on the day of Eid. When we went to her house we found that the lady, Gayatri, was taking care of two Muslim kids whose parents were stuck in Mumbai. This was in addition to two of her own siblings. This even when her husband has been fired from his job. So, you see the struggle of people who are left with no money and the struggle of those kids who cannot be with their parents even on the day of a festival. This was very painful to report.
D: When we crossed the Gurugram border, we met a group of about 10-12 people who were walking to Malda and one of them had an injured leg. On inquiring about their journey, we found out that these people were conned by a truck driver who had promised them to drop Malda in West Bengal but asked them to deboard saying that there was police ahead and they can board the truck after crossing the border. These people wanted to be at their home on Eid, but even on the day of Eid, they were still on the road walking with no money and food. These people had paid a hefty sum of Rs 37,000 to the truck driver and they were left with no other option other than walking. Since it was the day of Eid and we had some dates with us, we offered it to them. The most painful part of recording all these accounts was people were literally begging for help when we turned off our mobile camera. This pain can never be explained.
Dibayaudh and Sruthin getting their cycle repaired.
How was the response of police officials and other authorities during your journey?
S: We were trying to report a story from the Kanpur railway station but were not allowed to enter the premises. To our surprise, the police stopped us. Along with the railway officials, RSS guys had pointed us out. They didn’t directly talk to us. When they got to know that we were journalists and not regular people then they did their best to not let us inside the railway station while every other person was freely allowed to walk in. We even tried to raise the issue with senior railway officials but we failed. We had to return without reporting. This was the only incident in Uttar Pradesh where we were stopped in such a way. However, in other places, even the police helped us although they did enquire about us using their local intelligence units (LIU) and so on. In Etawah, too, we had a heated discussion with one of the senior cops.
What would you like to say about the experience?
D: Sitting in a newsroom and not going out to the field gives you a different image of a place. While I come from the East and Sruthin comes from the South, we have had a very different image of Uttar Pradesh. We only knew negative things about the state but the reality is different. When we discussed this assignment with our friends, we were advised not to go forward with this ‘stunt’ as we might get looted on the way or may fall prey to crime. But this was a transformative experience for us. Our views for the state have changed.