4 Desperate UP Students Brave Heat, Lockdown To Walk Over 500 km Home

UP Lockdown: Over the last 24 hours four UP students have walked, and hitchhiked, from Bareilly in western UP to Lucknow - a distance of 250 kilometres; their destination is Varanasi in eastern UP, a further 320 kilometres away

Coronavirus Lockdown UP: Four students from a Bareilly university are walking over 600 km home

Lucknow:

It is 11 am in Lucknow and the temperatures are already in the mid-30s. The heat is stifling. A group of college students, each carrying a backpack containing academic papers, some clothes, biscuits and water, trudge up to a security guard posted at the main gates of the city's Ambedkar Park.

"How much further to the Sultanpur-Banaras highway," Rohit Pandey, 21, asks the guard. "About 10 kilometres," he answers.

Mr Pandey and his three friends, all of whom are students at Bareilly's Rohilkhand University, sigh... a sigh born of resignation to hours more walking in this brutal sunshine.

Over the last 24 hours this group has walked, and hitchhiked, from Bareilly in western UP to Lucknow, the state capital - a distance of 250 kilometres. Their destination is Varanasi in the eastern part of the state, a further 320 kilometres away.

"Our families sent us money to sustain through the first phase of the lockdown and a few extra days. We live in PG (paid guest) accommodation in Bareilly and study at the university. Our money was on the verge of running out," Golu Mishra, one of the students, said.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the lockdown, to break the chain of transmission of the COVID-19 virus, heart-wrenching and haunting stories have emerged of migrant workers and people stranded far from home walking thousands of kilometres in a desperate bid to get back.

This week, a 12-year-old girl died, an hour from home, after walking nearly 150 kilometres from Telangana to Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district. Last week 94 migrants, and their families, were stopped amid a despairing bid to travel 1,000 kilometres packed into a truck from Haryana to Bihar.

Last month, a 38-year-old man who walked over 200 kilometres from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh died en route, before he reached his home.

Amid the fear and uncertainty caused by the lockdown, during which period all public transportation has been stopped, the government has ordered people to stay put, but not all can comply.

"That is not an option for us," Mr Mishra says, "I come from a family of daily wagers. With great difficulty they have sent me to university. They will send more money when they will earn but money has dried up for them too".

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Coronavirus Lockdown Migrants: Discarded rotting bananas become food for starved migrant workers

Daily wagers have been among those worst hit by the lockdown, with key sectors like construction (which employs them in lakhs) shut down. The government has re-started construction activity in rural sectors, as part of a phased lockdown-exit strategy, but it will take time for the money to flow.

In the meantime, distressing scenes can be seen, like those on the banks of Delhi's Yamuna river last week - where discarded bananas rotting in the sun made for an unexpected feast for a group of men.

In the first phase of the exodus, seen by many as a massive humanitarian crisis, the UP government ran buses from the Delhi border to districts in the state; these carried around four lakh migrants.

Last week around 300 buses were sent to Rajasthan's Kota, a popular coaching centre for competitive exams, to bring back students stuck there.

"The government did help us. A senior official got us into a truck on the highway near Bareilly. He asked us to avoid going into major cities and stick to highways. At other places, officials offered water, food and some empathy," Shubham Singh, another student, said.

After this brief chat the group, which began their journey Tuesday morning, say their goodbyes and walk on, hoping for more help on the sun-scorched highway amid this unprecedented medical and human rights crisis.