When India announced a national lockdown at the end of March, it caused an exodus of migrant workers and their families from Delhi back to their villages across the country.
This mass movement, combined with vanishing wages and the coronavirus pandemic, sparked a humanitarian crisis. When the lockdown was extended until the end of May, multimedia news outlet Asiaville decided to take a different approach to cover the crisis.
Two journalists set out on a 600km trip to document the journey many Indians were facing: uprooted families, disrupted work and fears for their health.
Lal spoke to Journalism.co.uk about the project, its inspiration and its challenges. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
At what point did you decide you wanted – or needed – to go out into the field and do this documentary?
The main tipping point was the visuals. We were seeing all these city-centric visuals of the migrant crisis, like around Dehli, so we wanted to know what happens to the people travelling through all the routes. We wanted to find out what happens if you travel like a migrant.
Even though the idea came in the first week of May, we had to come up with a workable plan first. We set out on 21 May because it was a logistical nightmare. There were no hotels, people would not allow you to stay at their own places because of coronavirus and Dehli was having a huge infection rate.
You were witnessing a humanitarian crisis happening in your own country. What went through your head in terms of how you wanted to cover the stories of migrant workers?
We did not want to be that person describing the plight of the other person from a car, with a TV crew and everything packed. This was such a significant moment in our history that we thought we should experience it first-hand.
The old-school way of doing it meant you needed expensive equipment to send out into the field. But you cannot do this as a single person or two people. Mobile phones allow you to do any sort of crazy journalistic experiments. We immediately wanted to make use of this minimal gear.
First, we wanted the first-person narrative to put ourselves in the story – some journalists may not agree with this style. Secondly, we wanted to make use of new media, the power of mobile technology and social media. We were live-tweeting and live-blogging. With certain stories we put out, people instantly reached out. We were reporting in four languages, and the Hindi vertical gained the most traction.
Mobile phones allow you to do any sort of crazy journalistic experiments.Sruthin Lal
That is one of the things which kept us going: it was 600km. I had some training but my colleague, Dibyaudh Das, never did anything like that. But he has got the attributes of a young journalist: very hard working and just wants to go out and do it. I did not know if we would be able to finish it physically, but that instant feedback drove both of us to do it.
The physical toll of the journey could have been matched by the mental toll. Which one was greater?
Both were tough. In the initial days, our bodies were tired but as days went on and we started witnessing these stories, it took a toll on us mentally, especially on Dibyaudh who is much younger.
I had that editor’s job of telling him what was the story and when not to get emotionally attached. I said to him ‘Our job is to get the story out. If you start feeling the pain of what you see out there, we won’t be able to finish the trip’.
There was one particular moment when we met migrant workers that were really hoping to be reunited with their families for Eid, but they had been walking for three days in 45 degrees heat. There were a lot of similar situations. It was very difficult.
You managed to speak to so many people during your trip and they all seemed so willing to stop and speak to you. How did you do that?
This was the advantage of the way we travelled. Nothing was planned besides our route, our only plan was just to go after what you see. Whenever we saw people walking, we just got our phones out, started talking and they told us their stories. Everything was so natural.
Everyone appreciated that we were on the ground reporting, they were more receptive to us and realised they we were travelling like them. That really helped us connect with people more because we understood their pain. Even the police in Uttar Pradesh could not believe we were journalists and doing this trip. When we showed them our press passes, they thought we were crazy.
What tech did you bring out on the road, and what were the pros and cons?
Dibyaudh used an iPhone 11, and I used an iPhone XR and a GoPro on my helmet. We also used lapel mics because we wanted good audio quality.
We carried a tripod as well but we never had the time use it properly. It was a monopod – like a selfie-stick – that we mainly used for interviewing at a distance because of the coronavirus. We just tied the mic around it as an extension, not the purpose it was made for. It was a lesson for us because it ended up being extra baggage, you only need the bare minimum. We were so worried because we were travelling from Dehli and talking to so many people, we did not want to spread anything.
We also had two or three mobile charging banks for emergency purposes. At night we put everything on charge, and then put the power banks in our bags to try and solar charge. A heatwave was going on so most of the time mobile phones stopped working. iPhones cannot work in 45 degrees heat, so there was a lot of turning off and on. GoPro was better in those situations.
Where did you manage to sleep and charge up?
I knew two or three people with government connections, so again, the fact that we travelled on bicycles helped because they felt like they had to help us. One government official called up some people in districts to open up government guest houses just for us.
We initially thought we could sleep rough but in the end, that would not have been possible because proper sleep proved necessary.
How did you assure the safety of yourself and your colleague?
We were really worried because Uttar Pradesh has a bad reputation. My room-mate is from this state and he gave me a very bad impression of it. Generally, he was saying, people are not that friendly to strangers and we might get attacked by the gangs out there. Now that people have lost jobs and we were carrying expensive equipment, they might try to rob us. Nothing like that happened, fortunately. People were so friendly because they appreciated what we did.
We avoided travelling at night, so we planned our trips to start at 5 o’clock in the morning and cycle until 11 o’clock. We would then break and set off again until about 4 or 5 o’clock to start recording. We would stop cycling by about 7 o’clock.
Reflecting on the journey, which moment stands out to you?
It is hard to think of one, the whole trip was amazing. But one moment that comes to mind is a woman I met. I told her I was a journalist and she invited me to her house. She showed me another two children living next door, they were separated from their mum and dad in Mumbai. They did not have the money to return by train. This family was Muslim and the woman was Hindu.
Hindus and Muslims are often portrayed fighting but this woman was taking care of these two children. She needed help though. I put out her story (below) and many people instantly reached out to help out, giving money and emergency rations. I felt really good about that story.
What did you learn from this project?
You will not find many stories about women in the documentary. Since both of us were men, women were reluctant to speak to us or men would not allow us to speak to women. So we could not cover the impact this crisis had on women, which we regret. We did not omit it, this highlights the importance of gender diversity. It was a learning for me and I will keep this in mind for the next time we go out in the field.