The heartbreaking human tragedy of Asli Bharat migrant workers exodus from Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, UP, Jharkhand, UP, Bengal and Chhattisgarh continues to unfold. Defining images of men with bags perched on their heads, pregnant women with children in their arms perilous trek on foot down highways desperate to return home sans food, water or money. Some perish of starvation, not a few lie in a heap of sheer exhaustion on rail tracks only to be run over by trains and many are hit by trucks. Yet the long caravans of mammoth misery trudges slowly.
The lockdown caught migrants unawares, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, suddenly evicted from jobs, homes and penniless resulting in an unmitigated crisis. With thousands breaking cordons of quarantine shelters in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Aligarh and Bareilly, spilling out in mass protest on the streets of Moradabad and Surat, waiting for phantom trains at Amritsar, Bandra, Bengaluru risking life and limb to remote villages.
This mass movement surprised authorities. Plainly, no policy maker had planned for such a reaction, and no detailed contingency plans seemed to be in place. Officials issued frantic orders to seal inter-State borders and people to maintain social distance from others so that the virus could not spread. They said that those on the move should quarantine for 14 days. Yet how could they? A lockdown, however necessary, was always going to be unbearably difficult for those without a social and economic cushion.
Alas, the once-in-a-century Covid 19 scourge has exposed India’s deep economic divide, bottomless potholes and subterranean fissures in the rotting fabric of our cities and the Central and State Governments’ apathy and incompetence towards its 80% workforce, the ‘informal sector’ of migrant labourers, at the lowest rung of the employment ladder.
The daily instances of confrontation with police, violence against health workers and fights over food and water suggest a deeper malaise of moral and humane proportions. Even as Prime Minister vowed “jaan hai toh jahan hai”, acerbically quipped a worker “jaan rahegi jab hi toh jahan hoga! If the virus won’t kill us, joblessness, hunger, desolation, depression, loss of self-esteem certainly will”.
TV pictures are replete with ghastly images of harmless lower class citizens constantly being bullied and intimidated in the name of the pandemic — men forced to become “murgas”, do sit-ups holding their ears, press-ups, touching-toes, hop like kangaroos and roll in the dust like pilgrims — all to satisfy egotistic or sadistic policemen.
Today States are facing a logistical “nightmare” as over 18 lakh migrant labourers and their families sign up to return home. In Gujarat over 5,000 blocked roads and pelted stones at the police for blocking them from going back. This, despite they might have the opportunity to work as factories slowly reopen.
Alongside, there is “huge levels of deprivation” and endemic food shortages from over half a dozen States eight weeks into the lockdown. With migrants rejecting food in detention because it was inedible or not like home food. Malnourished children in tatters begging for a few morsels and starvation deaths are heart-wrenching sight across the country.
Ironically, while FCI’s granaries are brimming with surplus grain roadblocks underscore a dismal lack of coordination between the Centre and States to speedily transport food to those in dire need. If things are not resolved soon, food riots could become a reality. The enforced incarceration has intensified levels of anxiety, frustration, and aggression all round.
Amidst this tragedy, finger-pointing politics continues. Trust the Opposition to lambast Modi for not doing enough. Calling the inept handling of migrants as a human tragedy, the Congress averred it would take pitiable plight before the public. Countered the BJP, States are only trying to heap their own shortcomings on the Government in their attempts to tackle the migrant crisis, prompting other Opposition leaders to allege that the Centre was trying to shift the blame for its failure on them.
Meanwhile the quibbling between the Centre and Opposition-ruled States rampages. The Centre accuses Mamta’s Bengal which has shown a high fatality rate for the virus about her lack of response to the migrant issue by only allowing two trainloads of workers to return, compared to over 450 Shramik Express which have returned to UP and 250 to Madhya Pradesh. “Not true,” retorts the stormy petrel, “I have got nine train-loads.” Yet, for reasons best known to her, she wants only 109 trains spread over the next 30 days.
As Assam’s Covid 19 cases rise, the State accuses Rajasthan of sending five more corona cases to the State when a bus packed with 43 passengers returned. Jharkhand blames Chhattisgarh and Gujarat of sending back migrants who tested positive. Maharashtra, which plays host to about 10 lakh migrants from other States, is finding it hard to send them home as States want the workers tested before they travel and be quarantined for 14 days.
Haryana and Karnataka also attached similar caveats. Bihar, which had earlier given blanket consent to migrants returning, has amended its stance to say it would decide case by case. Odisha is also reluctant to accept returning migrants. Buses from Jharkhand were turned back at the Bengal border, with the latter claiming it had no standard operating procedure to receive migrants.
Then there was a quibble on who would pick up the tab for the return journey. Initially, the Centre said the migrants would have to pay the fare, later the States, however post a strong public and Opposition backlash the Centre and States split the fare. Even as the Congress avers it picked up the train fare for thousands from States ruled by it.
That migrant workers never were in the calculation of politicians is no secret. As despite their numbers they have no political clout as many are registered as voters in their village. And when election day comes they are usually in the city where they work and unable to cast a ballot. Statistically, too they are invisible as they move between villages, cities and work sites whereby it is difficult to capture their number.
According to the Economic Survey, “If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20%, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million.” Yet as Modi said, when the chips are down, human instinct is to head home. As industries open it is hard to find labourers.
Undeniably, the migrant crisis will only worsen as they alternate between the fear of catching the virus and the fear of zero income. Add to it, another likely fallout of migrant woes could be the rise in labour exploitation in the pockets where there is an oversupply of workers. As people are desperate to get wages or means of livelihood, chances of oppression increase. Companies are already reporting labour shortages at ports and factories, potentially exacerbating an economic slowdown. On the flip side, workers conditions will likely improve in work-deficit pockets where there is not enough labour available with migrants going home.
Clearly, India faces an ugly human migrant problem of unparalleled magnitude which needs to be solved with humanity, humility and humaneness along-with discipline and obedience. True the Government has announced a spew of succor but it needs to open its purse strings more regardless of the return. The silver lining is that, if we want, we have this fresh lease of time now. To prepare to give the migrants a better new tomorrow!