Migrant labourers and their families from Chhattisgarh sit during a protest held against the government and to demand their return to their native places outside the Deputy Commissioner’s office after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Amritsar on June 3, 2020. (Photo by NARINDER NANU / AFP) (Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)
It was past midnight on Sunday when tailor Faruk Mansoori, his last savings exhausted by the coronavirus lockdown, made up his mind to cycle from Mumbai to his village 1,500 kilometres away.
In a last-ditch cry for help, his friend tweeted actor Sonu Sood after seeing pictures on Facebook of the Bollywood star with migrant workers boarding a bus. Minutes later, Sood replied – promising that Mansoori would be going home by bus, not bike.
“I was desperate to leave as I had no money to pay my rent. I can’t praise Sonu ‘bhai’ (brother) enough,” Mansoori said by phone, still six hours drive away from his village in Uttar Pradesh state, on Tuesday evening.
Sood, who often plays the villain in films and is known for his six-pack abs, has emerged as an unlikely hero among India’s stranded migrants during the coronavirus lockdown, helping thousands of them reach home on buses, trains and planes.
Millions of migrant workers, stuck without work or money in the cities, have walked hundreds of miles to get to their home villages. Many have died on the way in a string of accidents or from exhaustion.
Following outrage over their plight, authorities laid on hundreds of trains to ferry them home, but migrants have been struggling to get seats on the over-stretched services.
‘THIS IS MY DUTY NOW’
But among countless charitable initiatives to feed the workers and get them home, Sood and well-known Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna – who is running a massive food aid programme – have become go-to helplines for migrants in need.
“The trigger for me were the images of migrants walking with their children on these endless journeys. I imagined a father telling his child home was not far when they had to walk hundreds of miles,” Sood told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About 20,000 migrants have already left on buses, but “there are many more on the list,” he said.
The actor’s project Ghar Bhejo (send them home), which he started with restaurateur friend Niti Goel, quickly turned his Twitter timeline into a stream of desperate appeals.
A friend, K.K. Mookhey, helped them set up a helpline and the online registration of migrants. Within four days, 40,000 people were signed up, Mookhey said.
Sood, who initially raised funds among family and friends before drawing support from further afield, said it had been “the most important time in my life.”
“I thought I would help a few hundreds, then I thought a few thousands and then I thought I would help everyone… this is my duty now.”
‘ALL HANDS ON DECK’
On the other side of the world, holed up under lockdown in his New York home, Indian chef Khanna has turned his talents to helping ensure food supplies reach Indian orphanages, old people’s homes and stranded migrants.
His efforts got off to a rough start when he was cheated of the money he wired to a grain wholesaler for thousands of kilos of lentils and rice to be supplied to a home for the elderly.
His mother got him back on track, he said.
“She told me that we trained you to feed people and not to make videos and TikToks,” Khanna said by phone from New York.
Working in partnership with India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), he has since helped deliver more than 8 million meals in two months.
“The best part of the job is that people in orphanages and old age homes want to see your face on video calls,” Khanna said, who is personally answering thank-you messages on Twitter.
Donations have flooded in, with fuel distributors and grains companies offering money and their infrastructure to help get food to needy people in various parts of the country.
For India’s NDRF, help from famous names such as Sood and Khanna is welcome.
“It is a marriage of distress-management brands,” said Satya Narayan Pradhan, NDRF’s director general.
“COVID-19 has taught us that the only approach that works is having all hands on deck.”