Dhiren Hembrom, 31, walked all the way from Mumbai to Jharkhand's Chaibisa district, with his wife, five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, hoping that on reaching home, his family would finally find solace, after the hardship they had endured in the last three months.
But all such feelings turned to dust the minute they set foot on their home ground. They were not made to feel welcome but instead, found themselves being stigmatised. "We came back to our village after almost a year. The very next day, people gathered outside our houses and asked us to leave the village, fearing we might be carriers of the virus," Hembrom says.
"To set their minds at ease, we got ourselves tested at the village hospital but this did nothing to convince our neighbours. They would not leave us alone until local doctors and panchayat officials intervened," he recounts.
As for 28-year-old Suraj Kumar, another emigrant who returned on foot, from Mumbai to Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, his family have become the 'untouchables' of the Covid-19 era. Kumar had to spend two weeks in institutional quarantine on his return. Before that, he had to deal with the problem of being turned away by his neighbours.
"My neighbours stood together against me and said I won't be allowed, as I am a carrier of the virus. A local community leader told my father that unless the corona problem is solved, I should live somewhere else" Kumar told The Free Press Journal.
Not just Kumar but his entire family was ostracised. Local vegetable sellers and grocery shops refused to serve his family. Now, the family is forced to travel ten kilometres to the main cooperative market every week, for supplies.
"I came back from the city hoping I would find peace at home. But the situation is worse here. Not just me, my entire family is being singled out," Kumar said.
Hari Vishwakarma, 35, used up all his savings to reach home in Purnia, Bihar. The day he reached home, he was taken to the local district officer by the villagers, including his neighbours, who urged the officer to tell Vishwakarma not to return to his village.
"I had just set foot into my home and had barely opened my suitcase, when a group of senior community leaders arrived and practically dragged me off to the district office." However, said Vishwakarma, the government official spoke in his favour and dropped him home.
"Later, I got myself tested and was found negative. Even then, things did not change. People continue to treating us like untouchables. We are not allowed at any public gathering. Even my son must listen to taunts when he goes out to play," he added.
Vishwakarma says, although he has complained to the local administration, they have not registered his complaint. Instead, police have asked him to be patient, saying as normalcy is restored, such public fears will go away.