Millennium Post

India's missing sections

Plight of daily wage labourers, left without wages or a way home, must be promptly addressed

Let's talk oppression. With India's central and state governments announcing a complete lockdown across the country on March 24, 2020, when the devastating deadliness of COVID-19 began manifesting itself across the country, business — construction sites, manufacturing units, offices and so on — downed their shutters in a matter of hours. They were following the Government's diktat, a need of the hour. "Shut for at least 21 days" was the terse message sent out to daily-wagers across the country. In Greater Noida. Gurgaon. Faridabad. Rohtak. Pune. Gujarat. Rajasthan. Nashik. Pune belt — Chakan-Ranjangaon-Talegaon. Aurangabad. Hospet. Sriperumbudur. Tirupur. The list is long.

The teeming thousands who worked in these sectors huddled together and tried to figure out their next move. As daily-wagers, no earnings for the next "at least 21 days" meant no money for food, no money to pay rent and no money for travel. When many of these people reached their rented accommodation, most landlords shut that door too. Out of options, scores of these workers decided to head back to their homes and villages in Uttar Pradesh. Bihar. Madhya Pradesh. Maharashtra. Tamil Nadu. Kerala. Karnataka. West Bengal. Another long list.

When thousands upon thousands of these workers reached railway stations and bus terminals to get back to their homes, they found out that these services had also been suspended, abruptly and without any warning or buffer. With nowhere else to go, they headed for state borders on foot, or by taking any local conveyance options they could clamber on to. At the borders, they found themselves confronted by police blockades and barricades. Depending on the disposition and mood of the security persons manning these borders, they were either reasoned with and asked to go back, threatened and abused, or physically beaten up with sticks and canes and pushed back.

While this was the general scenario at most state borders in the evening of March 24, 2020, and till the wee hours of March 25, 2020, there were a few who found some 'lucky' borders. Here, they were surreptitiously helped by across-the-border state governments, packed like cattle into buses and sent home on highways which were now officially closed.

The others had nowhere to go. Most, eventually all, used means overt and covert to cross over to the next state and began walking. And they walked and walked. On deserted highways. Mile after mile. Hour after hour. In most cases, day after day. Little or no food.

There are troubling tales to share. A news agency reported on March 26, 2020, that with travel restrictions imposed due to the lockdown, 26-year-old daily-wager Narendra Shelke walked 135 km without food from Pune to reach his home in Chandrapur. As panic built up over the lockdown, Shelke, a labourer in Pune, decided to go back to his native Jambh village in Saoli tehsil of Chandrapur district. He walked for two days on the Nagpur-Nagbhid road without food, surviving only on water. A TV channel showed an interview with daily-wager Bunty, as he began his walk from Delhi to Aligarh, 160 km away, armed with his belongings, wife and three children. Another long list.

What India created in the process is a list of the country's missing people. And it is a long list — of people who have fled India's metropolises after losing their livelihoods and are now on their way home. On our highways. They have left but haven't reached home yet. Most of them are without mobile phones and connectivity. Many of them are carrying belongings half as heavy as themselves. All of them are hungry, with no idea of what the next few days hold for them. From the perspective of hunger, safety and security. Or future options—their only quest right now is to get back home.

A lucky few found saviours in similarly stranded, yet mobile, oil tanker drivers and truckers returning home base after delivering essential goods and supplies to state capitals. Some hid inside milk vans and other covered carrier vehicles. Most of these 'travellers' were found and find themselves confined in quarantine zones across the country. Others were stopped at other state borders and put in government-run shelters. Many others continue to march on. The common thread running across those quarantined and the others still trudging along is simple and singular. They want to go home.

That puts the concerned state governments in a fix. Having initially turned a blind eye to the plight of these people, they are now scrambling to come up with a solution and answer some tough questions, especially when these questions are being posed by the media and mostly on-camera. Arranging for transportation to get the stranded daily-wagers across a few state borders is easy enough, involving just some logistical coordination with transport corporations for the arrangement of buses, simple parleys and phone calls to neighbouring states' CMs, plus the opportunity to bid an on-camera adieu.

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Khattar, when asked what he planned to do with all these returning daily-wagers now in quarantine in his state, seemed open to options. He said he was in talks with local Deputy Commissioners to expeditiously create more quarantine centres to house these people for the 21-day lockdown period, ensuring they are provided food and healthcare. He added he was in constant touch with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and key officials in Bihar and Rajasthan. The consensus was to keep them confined to the quarantine area until the specified date and then arrange to send them home. The problem, he said, was that these people were 'home-sick'.

And then came Saturday, when things took a macabre turn in Delhi-NCR. Migrant workers still in the city were informed by 'authorities' that transportation, vide hundreds of buses, was being made available at Anand Vihar Bus Depot to take them home across all parts of UP. The news spread like wildfire amongst those daily-wagers who were still in Delhi. The 'announcement', spread through Social Media apps, saw daily-wagers head en masse through Delhi's 'locked-down' streets and on to Anand Vihar, in buses allegedly plying under the aegis of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). The buses picked people up from sundry parts of Delhi, charged them Rs 30 per head for the privilege instead of the usual fare of Rs 10, somehow ran through all police barricades unchecked and deposited thousands at Anand Vihar Depot. The buses then left.

At Anand Vihar, there was little or no further transport for these people. But what was there by early Sunday morning was a congregation of thousands upon thousands of people, now crowded into a tiny tract of depot land. Security barricades did not allow them to go further towards the Delhi border and into UP. They also had no way to go back to their rented accommodation in Delhi.

The ones who are walking still, and the ones who are now squatting in their hordes, are creating a Catch 22 situation. After having turned a blind eye to and/or not cared about what daily-wagers would be put through by a sudden national lockdown, the concerned states now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some states are acting in a knee-jerk fashion, as witnessed in Delhi on Saturday. Others are mulling their options. Most are doing nothing. Ironically, the situation is akin to what the country went through in late 2016 when Indians witnessed the unnerving spectacle of demonetisation.

The snaking queues and corruption witnessed at banks and ATMs in 2016 are eerily similar to the pandemonium we experience and personally witness today at grocery stores, with vegetable vendors and at chemist outlets. The difference is that in 2016, India was out to deal with and put an end to the hoarding of illicit cash and people had to put up with long queues to get to their own money. Today, we are dealing with possible illness, perhaps even death, on a massive scale. It is a tough call to take.

One can only hope that the outcome in 2020 is more toothsome and palatable than it was in 2016. And that sensibility and good governance see India's missing people get back to their homes and villages as soon as possible.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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