How this 22-year-old helped shoot the definitive documentary on India's migrant crisis during the pandemic

The second-largest forced migration happened when the lockdown was declared and the migrant labourers were left with no choice but to walk home. This is why it’s a story worth telling a million times
Speaking to the migrant labourers | (Pic: Abner Manzar)
Speaking to the migrant labourers | (Pic: Abner Manzar)

Home means everything. It is a safe haven that has come to mean so much more to us during the pandemic where it has doubled up as an office for all the work-from-home folk. So with no job projects, evicted from their rented places and lockdown hitting them hard, can you blame the migrant labourers for undertaking long journeys from the cities to walk back to their homes in their villages — the place that they call home? But that they will come out in such large numbers was the shocker, numbers that are hard to keep track off. So the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), whose mission is to bridge the digital divide, decided to conduct an Ethnography Study. The by-product of it was The Migrants, short films and documentaries.

On their way | (Pic: Abner Manzar)

Abner Manzar was volunteering with DEF and helping with relief work at Nuh and Sohna, two towns near Delhi, in May. And as he was a part of the communications team, he started talking to migrants and taking their interview. "They were all extremely agitated, hungry, tired and emotional. So I reasoned that this might not be the best time for a recorded interview," says the 22-year-old. So he and Ravi Guria, Head, Media and Communication, DEF, decided to set out on a journey of discovering the true stories of the migrants. "Beyond the city, no one was following them. It was assumed that if they reached their homes, the crisis was solved. But that's when the crisis actually began," he points out. So over 16 days in June, armed with an iPhone 11, the two travelled across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand and in each state, they visited four to five villages to document the plight of migrants.

Speaking to a migrant labourer | (Pic: Abner Manzar)

Let the journey begin
The duo interviewed 60 migrants and it was a mixed bag when it comes to the latter opening up and really talking. With the help of DEF coordinators in every village, they connected to various labourers who had come back home. While some were downright reticent, others were vague and yet others, like Arbaz Khan, a 20-year-old from Bhitiharwa, Bihar, really had a lot to say. When he heard about them, he came to meet them on a bike, almost bursting on the seams to share his story. "Since elections were coming up in Bihar, there were people who were reluctant as well. All we told them that your story needs to reach the world," explains Abner, who is an author as well.

We wonder what the migrants had to say about going back to the cities after the unlock, were they willing or reluctant? "They were people who refused to go back until a vaccine was in place, others wanted to go back to earn. But frankly, their answers were emotional. Out of desperation, most of them must have already gone back," reasons Abner who shuttles between Delhi and Puducherry. And what about the anger? Who was it directed towards? The government, surely. "Surprisingly, no. They were angrier with their employees. They felt betrayed by them. And yet, they had somehow resigned to their faith in some way," shares the travel enthusiast.

The migrant labourers | (Pic: Abner Manzar)

The shame of coming back
Another aspect that Abner introduces us to is the ridicule labourers faced after coming back to villages. Since having a job in the city is considered to be the ultimate achievement, when they came back, they were mocked by the rest of the villagers. "I think the solution to this would be more rural employment opportunities," mulls the youngster. However, the romantic idea that one holds of an Indian village was completely shattered as the duo went from one village to another. "As a youngster, it was eye-opening for me to travel to the heartland of India and see the abject poverty that some people live in. Also, the rampant discrimination, it's always in the air," he says with a tinge of sadness in his voice. And then adds, "But I feel that we have all seen migrant labourers as victims, but they are such inspirational figures. Would someone like you or I be able to sustain all that they have had to bear? I don't think so," shares the alumni of Sri Aurobindo International Centre Of Education, Puducherry.

A labourer | (Pic: Abner Manzar)

The team is planning for a virtual screening on December 15. The idea is that there will be one 30-minute-long documentary, which is the main offering and then there would be 30 short films of the interviews that they conducted, highlighting different themes.

For more on them, check out

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