Continuing saga of misery
The never-ending struggle of migrant workers is a blot on Indian democracy
After 65 days of the lockdown, one thing is amply clear. We have, as a nation, completely botched up the handling of the poorest of the poor. To call the four-hour notice of the lockdown a 'blunder' would be putting it mildly. It was the colossal failure of the Central administration in planning and implementing a well-thought-out strategy to fight COVID-19 outbreak in India. Was the lockdown necessary? It seems to be the chosen option of most nations save the likes of Sweden that are advanced nations with far less population. For India, a lockdown may have been the only way to break the chain. But in doing so, we have not only failed at flattening the curve, we have broken the backs of lakhs of migrant workers.
The saga of their pain and misery has continued for more than 65 days. First, they lost their livelihoods, begged for food and sustenance, pleaded for transport to return home. With no help in sight, they walked thousands of kilometres in the unforgiving summer heat, with frayed shoes, carrying the sick and the young on their shoulders; some succumbing to the unimaginable human toil needed to traverse state borders. When trains were finally allowed, they were asked to pay for tickets. If they were lucky to board trains, the trains lost their way. Imagine that! The great Indian Railways that connects the length and breadth of our nation and has been a national pride (remember the 1995 documentary directed by William Livingston titled 'The Great Indian Railway' and there have been many after) has missed destinations in the case of at least 40 Shramik trains. It is both befuddling and unacceptable; a cruel joke played on the migrant workers.
The agony of the migrant workers did not stop once the trains arrived. The heartrending video clip of a toddler trying to awaken a dead mother who gave in to hunger is unforgettable. Migrant workers are dropping dead, some of exhaustion, some from starvation, some in unfortunate road accidents, while many are testing positive for COVID-19. After spending days in close proximity with others and then being packed into train compartments in sordid, unsanitary conditions, these workers have not only been at risk of getting infected with the Coronavirus but are also carrying the virus back home. This is a matter of grave concern that has been raised both by West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, and Kerala Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan.
What could have been done differently? A few days' notice at least should have been given before the lockdown, allowing people to go home. The Central government should have transferred a sizeable amount to the accounts of all poor; isn't that what DBT (direct benefit transfer) and Jan Dhan accounts were for? And Rs 1,500 was too measly, anything between Rs 7,500-Rs 10,000 would have at least quelled the workers' desperation to leave. The Supreme Court too has failed the poor by initially being satisfied by the Centre's plan and only now awakening from its stupor to direct food, shelter, and free travel to the migrant workers. And states too have failed in providing succour to those precious lives who are engaged in nation-building. Perhaps if these workers had voting rights, they would have been treated with more care and respect by the political class. The only exception is Kerala again, where workers seem in no hurry to return. News reports suggest that not only has the State Government taken care of them but their employers have also been compassionate and locals too have lent a helping hand.
Is organised due process too much to ask when executive orders are passed by the central government? We are a populous country and that has often been our Achilles' heel while handling emergency situations. But surely, there could have been a more astute manner of handling what is now a humanitarian crisis. The political blame game between the Centre and the states will continue with all trying to shirk culpability. But the truth is that all are guilty of ignoring and brazenly stymieing the interests of the poor, especially the migrant workers. Those that prop our factories, construction sites, and by extension, our nation's economy, were left scared, desperate, alone and hopeless. We can never forget this.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal