The image of Rampukar Pandit, sobbing uncontrollably is going to stay with us for a long time. The migrant laborer who has become a snapshot of India’s migrant tragedy is back in Bihar, broken at not being able to see his son before he died.
“We labourers have no life, we are just a cog in the wheel, spinning continuously until we run out of life,” the 38-year-old said.
The construction labourer, who worked at a cinema hall site in Delhi, was spotted weeping as he talked on the phone by the side of the Nizamuddin Bridge in Delhi by PTI photographer Atul Yadav on May 11. The powerful image of the distraught man, struggling to reach home in Begusarai, almost 1,200 km away during the lockdown, was widely shared across all media. Mr. Pandit had been stuck there for three days before help arrived.
When the photograph was taken, he said he was anguished at the thought that he might not get home on time to see his baby. Shortly after the photo was taken, his son, who had not yet turned one, died. “I pleaded to the police to let me go home but none helped,” he told PTI over the phone. “One policeman even said, ‘Will your son become alive if you go back home. This is lockdown, you can’t move’.”
A woman in Delhi and a photographer — he did not know Mr. Yadav’s name — were his saviours, he said. “A journalist asked why I was so upset and tried to help me by taking me in his car, but the police did not allow him. The woman gave me food, Rs 5,500 and booked my ticket in the special train, and that’s how I reached home.”
“The rich will get all the help, getting rescued and brought home in planes from abroad. But we poor migrant labourers have been left to fend for ourselves. That is the worth of our lives,” he said. “Hum mazdooron ka koi desh nahin hota (We labourers don’t belong to any country.”
Mr. Pandit, who also has three daughters, said he had named his son Rampravesh, as his name also has a Ram in it. “Will a father not want to go home and even mourn the death of his son, with his family?”
Mr. Pandit, who moved to Delhi’s Uttam Nagar during his childhood along with his uncle to eke out a living, still hasn’t managed to meet his family.
“I reached Begusarai from Delhi by train a couple of days ago. We were then taken to a nearby screening facility and kept there overnight. In the morning, a bus took us to a school just outside Begusarai town, and since then I am here,” he said.
He still doesn’t know when he will be reunited with his family.
Mr. Pandit is now at a quarantine centre on the outskirts of Begusarai. “My wife, who is unwell, and my three daughters, are waiting for me. The wait just doesn’t seem to end,” he said.
Fortunately, he has found a friend in his hour of grief.
Ghanshyam Kumar, 25, his neighbour in his village Bariarpur, is also quarantined in the same school.
“I work as a labourer in Kanpur, and reached the U.P.-Bihar border after taking a bus, and from there a train. At the station, I recognised Rampukar. Grief tears us apart, and sometimes unites us too,” he said.