Thousands and thousands of tired feet, walking on sweltering highways for days, homeward bound. Away from the cities where their means of incomes had disappeared almost overnight. Men. Women. Young. Old. Their meagre personal possessions on their backs.
These were the images of labourers and workers of India that flooded social media and news following the nationwide lockdown. It was a migration of desperation of an unprecedented kind.
Pained by what he saw, Naren Chaudhari, a young, indigenous sarpanch of Kachhal village in Surat district of Gujarat, started a WhatsApp group of his wide network of contacts. It posted a message promising to reach out to the walking people with transportation.
Thus was born Operation Roadlift.
Soon enough, his phone was flooded with distress calls and messages asking for help. Between March 26 and March 31, he and his group helped over 3,500 people, largely women and children, reach their homes in over 60 villages.
His initial plan was to help people passing his area, but seeing the exhausted walkers, he decided to expand the radius. The group dropped people from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra till the state borders — which was as far as the authorities would allow them to go.
They also set up temporary kitchens to feed these people. Apart from initial temperature screening and mask and sanitiser distribution, the team also ensured that those they were ferrying got screened by doctors once they reached their home.
The operation was initially funded with their personal savings, but as requests for help kept pouring in, they reached out to donors.
He is still getting calls from various places. As the lockdown has made it impossible for people to be ferried, his focus is now on ensuring that no one goes hungry in his block. His team is running a community kitchen for stuck migrant workers and others in need.