Lest we forget
The Centre has claimed that there is no data available on the death of migrant workers even as independent researchers prove it wrong
Public memory, they say, is short. But have we already forgotten the painful sight of thousands of migrant labour trudging long arduous journeys in the blazing Sun, traversing state borders in their bid to get home? Have we whitewashed from our memory the unplanned lockdown with its sudden announcement in March earlier this year that caused widespread panic and hardship? Its effect is felt primarily by the poorest of the poor in India — migrant labour — the ones who live squalid lives in big cities, miles away from home, while helping in nation-building by working on factory floors and construction sites. The government surely has forgotten them.
The central government admitted in the Parliament this week that there was no data on migrant labour deaths or health worker deaths or job losses, caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. It said that the question of providing compensation did not arise because there were no compiled numbers of the deaths. Even as the Centre hurriedly provided the excuse — there is no method available at the district level to collate such data — it exposed the great apathy that our current political masters bear for the backbone of the nation.
The government said that no data is available on the lives that were lost largely due to the mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing prolonged lockdown. Has the government forgotten that while we were beating 'thalis' and lighting 'diyas', people were actually dying — not of the virus but that common people were literally starving on the roads back home, their shoes tearing even as they carried their children and paltry material belongings on their shoulders? No data, the government says, but hundreds of news reports say otherwise.
According to an RTI, the Indian Railways has confirmed at least 80 deaths aboard the Shramik Special Trains. Delhi-based NGO, SaveLIFE Foundation said in June that at least 198 migrant workers had been killed in road accidents. Researchers at the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) claim that 972 migrant workers died till July 4 due to various lockdowns. According to SWAN, 216 died of starvation and financial suffering, 209 succumbed to road or train accidents, 133 died by suicide, 96 persons met their end aboard Shramik Special trains, and 77 died due to want of medical care. Along with these, 49 deaths were reported at quarantine centres, 49 died due to alcohol withdrawal, 48 due to exhaustion. At least 30 died due to police brutality and lockdown-associated crimes while 65 deaths remain unclassified. Another website (www.thejeshgn.com) built by four volunteers has recorded 906 deaths under 10 categories.
These are the number of reported deaths; the actual figures could be much worse. Most of these numbers have been collected by independent researchers collected through news reports available in the public domain. If independent researchers and NGOs could collect such important data, what stopped our government machinery? Surely, they have the resources in place to set up a system. Maybe even take help from the private sector or new economy composed of young, talented startups.
The Centre has now woken up and announced that it will create a national database of unorganised workers. A little too late considering the massive criticism that the government faced on the sudden lockdown that did more harm than good. With almost a lakh new cases of COVID-19 being reported every day (the actual numbers again likely to be many times over), the lockdown only negatively impacted the economy and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of India's poor. Agreed that perhaps the government had no other option than to announce lockdowns but it should not have been a knee-jerk reaction with a four-hour deadline hanging over people's heads. No, this time, it was not fake news that created panic. It was the strict lockdown that allowed the poor no chance of getting home that caused the panic and increased COVID spread. And now the government will not even compensate them.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal