Rajesh Chouhan (right) on his long walk home.
CNN  — 

Rajesh Chouhan had covered 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in five days. His legs were swollen and his blisters had burst. A piece of Styrofoam trash he’d found on the roadside was soaking up the pus seeping from his feet.

But he didn’t stop walking. He couldn’t.

The 26-year-old migrant worker was in the heart of India and only halfway home.

When India announced its nationwide lockdown on March 24 to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, despite having less than 450 cases at that point, its cities ground to a halt. About 100 million rural Indians have moved to cities for work. Overnight, many like Chouhan were stranded without jobs, food or savings.

With no way to survive in the cities, and India’s vast railway network mostly shut down, many made the extraordinary decision to walk thousands of miles back to their families.

Many didn’t make it. In one incident, 16 laborers were run over by a freight train as they slept on rail tracks. Roadside accidents took the lives of others. Some died from exhaustion, dehydration or hunger. Those picked up by police were often sent back to the cities they had tried to leave.

Chouhan knew the risks. But on May 12, he decided to defy India’s strict lockdown laws and begin the 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) walk from the tech hub of Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

He’d hoped to hitchhike much of the way, but with police checking trucks for stowaways, drivers were demanding fees beyond Chouhan’s budget. For 10 days, he’d have to dodge police check points, 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’ll always carry memories of sadness and anxiety.”

A 3 a.m. getaway

Chouhan moved to Bengaluru last December to work as a mason on a construction site.

In his home village of Tribhuvan Nagar, on India’s border with Nepal, he earned 250 rupees ($3.30) a day. In Bengaluru, he could double that.

He and his brother, who worked in another state, sent home about 14,000 rupees ($185) a month – enough to sustain their family of 11, including Chouhan’s two young children and his elderly parents, living in a thatched roof house set amid sugarcane and wheat fields. His nephew Arvind Thakur joined Chouhan in the city as soon as he turned 14, the legal age to work in India.

By the time Chouhan, his nephew and nine other migrants from their hometown had decided to leave Bengaluru, the country had been shut down for weeks. Some rail services resumed on May 3, allowing interstate travel – but only subject to a laborious approval process.

Migrants were told to register their travel plans at police stations. By May 5, more than 214,000 people had registered to leave Karnataka state, of which Bengaluru is the capital. However, barely 10,000 people got tickets as there was limited train service.

Normally Chouhan pays 300 rupees ($4) for the 48-hour trip home in the lowest carriage class, but during the pandemic that price soared to 1,200 rupees ($15.90). State police were assigned to sell tickets and keep order at police stations packed with travelers desperate to get home.

Police in Bengalore told CNN they resorted to using batons to clear the crowds when sales for the day ended. “We were 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 didn’t dare tell their families.

“We were beaten many times. Just because we are poor, doesn’t mean we can’t feel pain.”Rajesh Chouhan

“My father is severely diabetic and it would take a toll on him and my mother if they found out that we were walking home with no money,” Chouhan says. “They’d cry until our return. All of us decided to tell our families that we were waiting for a train.”

He packed four shirts, a towel and a bed sheet in his backpack, along with a couple of water bottles. In his wallet was 170 rupees ($2.25).

At 3 a.m. on May 12, Chouhan slipped out of the single-room tin shed he shared with 10 other people and took his first step towards home.

Getting out

By the time Chouhan left, police checkpoints had been erected across the city. Authorities had not anticipated the rush of migrants wanting to leave and clarified that registration applied only to those “stranded” – not migrant workers. Unauthorized interstate travel was banned.

As Chouhan’s group walked across the city, they were picked up by 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, often they are unaware of them and exploited by employers.

At noon, police officers changed shifts and the group was left unattended. “We ran out of there,” Chouhan says. “We ran for two kilometers or so until we felt we were safe.”

Migrant workers wait to board buses during the coronavirus lockdown in Bengaluru on May 23, 2020.

Following railway tracks to avoid police on the roads, the group walked through the night, with other migrants, until they entered Andhra Pradesh at 1 a.m.

After 46 hours, they had crossed the first of the five state borders they would encounter. They had traveled just 74 miles (120 kilometers).

Hope, solidarity and hunger

Chouhan’s group of 11 migrants had nine smartphones between them, and they used Google Maps to navigate their route. They used the flashing blue dot to see if they were roughly walking in the right direction.

To conserve battery power, only one person would have their phone switched on at a time, and they took turns sharing GPS. There were few places along the way where they could charge their phones.

The first part of their journey traced National Highway 44 – a long, open road that slices India neatly in two, running the length of the country from Tamil Nadu in the south to Srinagar in the north.

Volunteers  distribute food to migrants on National Highway 44.

This road would take them to Hyderabad, the city of 10 million people that was to be the first big landmark of their journey – and where they’d heard it would be possible to hitchhike the rest of the way home.

As temperatures topped 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Chouhan walked about 5 miles (8 kilometers) an hour, taking a brief rest every two hours. He aimed to complete about 68 miles (110 kilometers) a day. “There was temptation to rest or to nap,” he says. “But we were aware that it became more difficult to walk each time we sat down.”

Along the way, they’d see other groups of migrants heading for the impoverished western states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which supply India’s cities with much of their migrant labor force.

On the road, Chouhan says traditional divisions of caste and religion – deeply entrenched fault lines in India’s rural hinterlands – disappeared. His group of 11 spanned various castes from the same village. There were Brahmins and Thakurs, who are considered upper castes, and Chamars, who are among the lowest. On the long walk home, it didn’t make a difference.

When Chouhan’s slipper broke on the second day, the group pooled their funds to buy him a new shoe.

Rajesh Chouhan and his friends wait on the divider hoping for a truck to drop them across the border.

After asking locals about ways to bypass the upcoming police checkpost, Rajesh’s 11-member group heading to Gonda join a 17-member group heading to Chattisgarh state. The group peeled off the highway and walked through fields and forests to avoid the police.

But by day three, they had not had a full meal since they left Bengaluru. Each person had started out with between 150 rupees ($2) and 300 rupees ($4). Instead, they’d buy 20 biscuits for 100 rupees ($1.32) and ration them through the day. “We had to save every rupee in case we needed it later during the journey,” says Chouhan.

“Our stomachs would rumble. We’d eat a biscuit to keep it quiet. We were hungry, but we had no choice. We had to save every rupee in case of an emergency.”

Around 8 a.m. that day, they stopped on the side of National Highway 44, thinking they’d rest for an hour. They slept for eight, oblivious to the din of highway noises and blaring trucks.

When they woke up at 4 p.m. Hyderabad was 250 miles (400 kilometers) and one state border away.

Crossing borders

With Hyderabad in his sights, Chouhan walked through the night. But when his group reached the town of Kurnool at about 10 a.m. on day four, a police checkpoint blocked the bridge 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 were crossing the river on foot.

Chouhan and the others hesitated – they didn’t know how to swim. “Men, women, children, the elderly were crossing the river,” he says. “(We thought) if they can do it, why can’t we.”

After a long, hot summer, the river was only 3 feet (1 meter) deep. Chouhan held his bag over his head, and one of the tallest men in their group carried his 14-year-old nephew.

“We were so scared we’d be washed away. But we kept telling ourselves this was the only way home. This 100-meter stretch was perhaps the most scared we’ve been on this journey,” says Chouhan.

Back on the highway, truckers were asking as much as 2,500 rupees ($33) per person to take them towards 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 option but to walk,” says Chouhan.

But others were more charitable. One old man offered them their first full meal in four days. A truck driver took pity on their blistered feet and offered them a lift. He was transporting rice across the border and they slept between the gunny sacks, as he drove them around the outskirts of Hyderabad.

The old city of Hyderabad, the capital and largest city of the southern Indian state in Andhra Pradesh.

After they passed the Telangana-Maharashtra border, they had another stroke of luck – a villager took them to a school where NGOs were giving food and water to migrant workers.

More than 300 migrants were eating when the police arrived.

“They started to abuse us,” Chouhan says. “They said we were not following social distancing and we should sit 10 feet from each other. They attempted to disperse the crowd and told the organizers to stop giving out food.”

But the migrants outnumbered the police. “We started to shout back. Some migrant workers even started to push the police, and the police retreated towards their jeep,” he says. “We were angry. They (police) don’t help us at all – they don’t help people help us.”

Pandemic and death on roads

When Chouhan was in Bengaluru, he had heard about the pandemic that had brought India to a halt. But he says his understanding of it was poor. When he left on May 12, Bengaluru had just 186 confirmed cases. As he walked home, Chouhan chatted to other migrants, huddled in trucks and tractors, and ate meals in close quarters, breaking social distancing regulations.

There is little data on how the migration of urban workers has impacted 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 picked it up along the way.

In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, more than 807,000 interstate migrants were being quarantined by May 24. Of the more than 50,000 tested, 1,569 were diagnosed with Covid-19.

On day five of their journey, the group had a health scare as they approached the central Indian city of Nagpur.

Rajesh’s nephew Arvind Thakur had a fever. “I did get scared,” Thakur says. “I do not understand anything about coronavirus. But the adults told me it cannot be coronavirus as it comes first as a cold and cough. I only had fever. They gave me tablets and I felt better.”

On the highway, the pandemic was a low priority – there were more pressing health concerns: hunger, thirst, exhaustion and pain.

There is no official data on deaths due to India’s lockdown, but a volunteer-driven database set up by a group of Indian academics has been tracking local media reports of fatalities as a consequence of the policy.

By May 24, it had recorded 667 deaths, of which 244 were migrant workers who died while walking home: either through starvation, exhaustion or in rail and road accidents.

“In Bengaluru, I was scared of this illness,” says Chouhan. “Now, all we wanted to do was go home. It was not in our hands if we fell sick during this journey.

“The moment we left Bengaluru, we’d left our fate to the gods.”

The home run

Under the black night sky and thick canopies of the forested areas of Central India that once inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The Jungle Book,” Chouhan crossed the Maharasthra-Madhya Pradesh border. It was day six.

In Madhya Pradesh, tractors, buses and trucks helped the group along during the day, and hillside villagers provided them with food and even a tanker to bathe in.

Two days later, they reached the border of their home state, Uttar Pradesh. Home was just 217 miles (350 kilometers) away. “We forgot our pain. It felt like we were already home,” says Chouhan.

As they passed Prayagraj, a site central to Hindu spiritualism where the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati converge, Chouhan allowed himself a rare moment of joy.

Hindus take a dip in Prayagraj,  where the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati converge.

Joining thousands of Hindus, he took a dip in the cool waters, and said a prayer for the group to reach home early.

One day later, their ninth of walking, they reached the state capital, Lucknow.

Home was just 80 miles (128 kilometers) away. Chouhan bought a meal for the first time since their journey began and called his family. “We told them we had come by train to Uttar Pradesh. We would be home in a day,” he says.

The closer they came home, the more tired Chouhan says they felt.

On day 10, at Gonda, 18 miles (30 kilometers) from their village, Thakur’s body gave up. He fell face first into the asphalt. The group revived him by pouring water on his face.

Then, just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from home, they ran into the police. Too weak to run, they allowed officers to place them quarantine.

Finally, they were home.

Home and scarred

The scars of walking up the spine of India took its toll on their bodies.

Chouhan says he has lost 10 kilograms (22 pounds) throughout the journey. He says his feet have swollen so much it’s a struggle to walk to the bathroom in the school where he is meant to be quarantined for 14 days.

However, in Uttar Pradesh the quarantine is badly enforced.

On May 24, Chouhan says his family was allowed to visit him in quarantine.

His children lunged towards him. And when they hugged tightly, Chouhan says he forgot his pain. He has been allowed to visit his family at 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 says, reminds him how his work in Bengaluru has sustained his family.

Yet on May 25, tragedy struck. Thirty-year-old Salman, one of the 11 who walked from Bengaluru, was bitten by a snake just days after arriving home and leaving quarantine.

He died on the way to the hospital.

More than 45,000 people die of snake bites in India annually. More than 200 people attended Salman’s funeral, including some of the group Chouhan walked with, who were meant to be in quarantine.

Chouhan is mourning the tragedy. Yet he realizes that the poverty in his village, the hunger of his family, and the mounting debt from their medical treatment mean he must eventually return to the city to work.

“When I left Bengaluru, I resolved never to return,” he says. “The best I can do is wait for a few weeks to see if the lockdown is relaxed before heading out again for work.”

Design and graphics by Jason Kwok. Edited by Jenni Marsh and Hilary Whiteman.