14-year-old Priyanka’s ordeals: Home alone for three months, and the long journey to her family!
Location — Dharavi, Mumbai
The sudden announcement of the COVID-19 induced lockdown across India from 24 March 2020 left many vulnerable people completely helpless. Among them was Priyanka (name changed) a 14-year-old girl stranded alone at home in the informal settlement of Dharavi, Mumbai. Shortly before the announcement of the lockdown, Priyanka’s entire family had travelled to their village in Uttar Pradesh due to a relative’s untimely death. However, Priyanka had to stay back in Mumbai, due to her ninth-grade examinations. She was expecting her parents to be back in a week. That never happened. The lockdown made it possible for Priyanka’s family to reach her. The fourteen-year-old had no choice but to remain stranded in Mumbai, scared and alone with no close neighbours or relatives.
This posed a twin set of problems. Priyanka was not just worried about the virus — at a time where COVID-19 cases were on an exponential rise in the area — but also about her safety. Knowing that she had to sleep alone every night till she could reunite with her family petrified her day after day. She told us, ‘I used to feel scared at night, and could not sleep’.
Priyanka went to the police around five times asking for help, but to no avail. The police did tell her that they would inform her when trains going to Uttar Pradesh would be arranged, but upon asking her whether anyone did inform her, she said, ‘No they didn’t come, no one came.’ Instead, they gave her some ration and offered to shift her to a shelter. Her family did not find the offer reassuring enough to let her leave the safety of her own home. Increasing COVID-19 cases in Mumbai also scared them and they preferred her staying alone and away from the crowd.
Meanwhile, her father had been trying to call and seek help from every possible source for months, but to no end. He wanted permission and means to come to Mumbai to get his daughter. ‘I tried calling everyone’, he said, ‘But no one helped’. Feeling utterly helpless about the situation, the family was dejected.
During Priyanka’s time alone in Dharavi, eventually she ran out of ration. Luckily, soon after her father stumbled upon the Childline helpline 1098, and the YUVA Urban Initiatives team immediately delivered ration to her, within a day’s time, and maintained regular contact with her since then.
Three months into the lockdown, an elderly man from her neighbourhood offered to drop Priyanka to Allahabad. He was a stranger who had heard about her case. Priyanka’s parents had no choice but to trust this man in the hopes of getting their daughter back — all avenues they had tried had not worked out. On asking her father how he could trust a complete stranger with his daughter, her father said they had to trust any man who is ready to help them in their time of need and no one is greater than that person for them. He told us ‘What could have I done, I had no other choice or way’. He also had to spend Rs. 3500–4000 for his daughter’s return, a huge sum for him because at this point he had no source of income and very little savings. Nothing could equal the thought of meeting his daughter again, however!
Soon enough, Priyanka, along with a group of other migrant workers, embarked on a three-day journey. She, along with her neighbour, travelled to Bhiwandi via taxi from Dharavi. Priyanka mentioned how she was very hesitant to board the truck from Bhiwandi due to her doubts about her security and safety. Her father, feeling completely helpless from miles away, convinced her to stay strong and continue with the travel as this was the only chance for her to return to them. Moreover, there was no one to take her back to Dharavi.
From Bhiwandi they boarded a truck along with 30–40 other people. There were only two women onboard, no children. Fortunately, all of them were kind and took care of Priyanka and her needs during the journey, supplying her with food and water throughout.They were able to create a safe and a comfortable environment for her. Looking back on the ordeal, her father also mentioned how the only reason Priyanka could stay alone in Dharavi for three months was due to the compassion and large-heartedness of the people around her at all times.
This journey was not without challenges, however. There was no place to sleep for three days, and the journey was made during the peak of a blistering North Indian summer. Priyanka, however, persisted, fuelled by her desire to see her parents and feel safe again. She was brave in taking the journey on her own despite only being 14-years-old. The desperation to see her family again gave her the strength and resilience to overcome the hurdles faced. She returned to her parents taking grave risks on the way, and fortunately encountering the kindness of strangers too. None of this, however, is often the case.
Today Priyanka is with her family, feeling safe and happy; but that’s not all. Her father is deeply burdened with no work and income; the only relief is that they are home together. He mentioned how repeatedly they are feeling helpless and vulnerable with no proper resources. He also said the situation is so bad during these times that people are not ready to help each other but themselves. That’s why Priyanka’s father feels that God blessed them with the kind stranger who helped them get back their daughter.
Contributed by Shobha Agashe, Sheeva Dubey who work with Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and Sanskrti Bansal who is an intern at Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA).