Resilient? No, hungry
Why is it that the Indian middle-class and elite are okay in the belief that our poor are resilient? Maybe we have mistaken their patience for resilience and if the COVID-19 lockdown has shown anything, the builders of our capitalist dreams are hungry for food with a deep longing for their families and all our perceived conviction in their resilience does is perhaps helps us sleep peacefully at night
The hopes and dreams of some 94 lakh people (by the most conservative estimates) across India were crushed brutally, when until March 13, the Government of India had been denying the seriousness of COVID-19 as a public health emergency and suddenly, in a few days, it started publicising the importance of social distancing to contain the then-slowly increasing number of infections. With barely a four-hour notice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that a nation of over 1.3 billion would be going under a 21-day lockdown, leaving the builders of our capitalism and middle class in a lurch they are yet to find a way out of.
When Indian authorities had finally decided to pull up their bootstraps and put in place measures to contain the spread of the novel Coronavirus, the tens of crores of migrant workers who had come to metro cities to build our homes and places of business, started with a sense of uncertainty that did not take long to convert into hope before leading towards utter helplessness and a desperation to be with their families and loved ones during a pandemic that has quite essentially brought the entire world to a standstill.
There is a reason the Indian middle-class and elite are able to sleep peacefully at night while lakhs die trying to walk thousands of kilometres home - just to be with their families. There is a reason we believe the poor will get through this and that is because our history of poverty has somehow led to a thought process where a large part of the society truly believes in the resilience of our poor — with a conviction that no matter what comes their way, India's poor are resilient enough to come out the other side. Maybe it is time to introspect why we so deeply believe that our poor can take whatever we throw at them.
The chaos — much like several other incidents over the last three months — began with a knee-jerk reaction of the current administration to the COVID-19 crisis. Be it the police brutality witnessed in December last year during the anti-CAA protests or the mob violence and police inaction inside the JNU campus in January this year or what resembled police complicity during the North East Delhi riots; since the NDA-II government came to power, it has seemingly made a habit of having knee-jerk responses and then getting into sloppy damage-control measures.
The first COVID-19 case in India was reported on January 30, However, up until March 13, the administration felt comfortable telling the press that the Coronavirus was not a public health emergency. By this time, India had already reported 82 COVID-19 infections. In February, preparations for the US President's visit were on and till March 22, the BJP — at large — was focused on getting Shivraj Singh Chauhan back as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh — which is currently dealing with a rapidly increasing case rate and fatality rate without a cabinet or a health minister. By the time PM Modi called for the Janata Curfew, it was time for a lockdown. So how did the migrant crisis unfold? First came
Days before the PM had even announced the one-day curfew, signs of impending doom were apparent to the daily-wage workers, construction workers and labourers from many other sectors of the informal workforce. As States took the first steps to try and contain the virus, cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru were already imposing restrictions, leading to a large number of jobless blue-collar workers - uncertain about whether they will get work or whether they will be able to get home to see their families. While the government claims that it had planned the lockdown as minutely as possible, the Indian Railways continued to take bookings till March 22 — three days before the lockdown was imposed. Till that time, around 55 lakh people had made bookings to travel between March 25 and April 14, most of whom were migrant labourers trying to return home from cities.
After the lockdown was announced, all 55 lakh bookings were cancelled.
However, the situation quickly got out of hand in the first week of lockdown, following which tens of thousands of workers in Delhi gathered at the Anand Vihar ISBT, hoping to hitch a ride back home — only to be lathi-charged by Delhi Police, who had no way of controlling a crowd of that size and ensure norms of social distancing.
Eventually, the Centre issued direction for landlords to not charge rent from these workers, state government mobilised to house and feed them — while thousands with no hope of transport started walking across state borders with nothing but the objective of reaching home. Many were, in fact, insisting that they did not have a problem with being tested and quarantined once they reached their villages — but they just wanted to go home.
According to curated reports, by March 29, at least 22 migrant workers had lost their lives trying to get home, including several children below the age of 10. By the time the first lockdown ended on April 14, the number of COVID-19 deaths was around 300; whereas more than 200 people had lost their lives as a consequence of the lockdown itself. And then came
After three continuous days of media coverage on the migrants' reverse exodus, several state governments mobilised buses to bring their residents back home — but unfortunately not enough. While some thousands were able to somehow get screened and board the state buses, tens of thousands of others continued their arduous journey on foot, meandering across India's highways, surviving on uncooked rice grains and salt, borrowed from people generous enough to help them.
However, by April 2, reports came of the Indian Railways taking bookings for travel after April 14 — the end of Lockdown 1.0 — giving a ray of hope to millions as the government kept insisting that there was no plan to extend the lockdown beyond that date. Even until April 12, the government had said that they had not yet concretised plans for extending the lockdown, but of course, we saw Lockdown 2.0.
By April 14, another 39 lakh people had booked tickets to travel home between April 15 and May 3. All of these bookings were also cancelled as the Prime Minister announced the extension in an address on the morning of April 14.
On the same evening, Delhi's Anand Vihar ISBT scene saw a repeat as tens of thousands of migrant workers gathered at the Bandra railway station in Mumbai, demanding to be allowed to go home. While most had pinned their hopes on a local report that a special train may be facilitated to take them home. Again, they were lathi-charged into quarantine centres and homeless shelters with just the basic thermal screening. The same evening, migrant workers in Surat protested, wanting to go home. While the administration was quick to dismiss the Surat protest as a sign of a disobedient few it blamed Maharashtra's government for the crisis in Bandra.
And quickly the workers started feeling the pangs of
With desperation in their eyes, longing for their loved ones, crores of stranded migrant workers looked on as 28 luxury buses were arranged for 1,800 Gujarati tourists to return from Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh organised buses for hundreds of stranded students in Kota, Rajasthan as the Centre continued to justify the restriction on migrant workers' movements by saying that it was imperative for all to follow the lockdown.
Despite this, the migrant workers looked on as buses were regularly arranged for foreign nationals stuck in different states — so that they can be evacuated from major airports by their respective countries. And all this while, more migrant workers kept dying on our highways, many committed suicide out of unemployment and many others were lynched by vigilante mobs "trying to enforce PM Modi's lockdown".
Moreover, the stranded workers tried to survive the knots forming in their stomachs out of hunger. According to the Food Corporation of India, as of March, the country's foodgrain stockpile was at 77.7 million tonnes — a record high, despite which hunger remained a problem we are still unable to solve.
All these builders of our cities wanted was to go home and be with their families during a global crisis.
Eventually, the Maharashtra government had also figured out a way to send around 1.31 lakh sugarcane factory workers back to their native villages, after spending more than three weeks without work, stranded at their workplaces and desperate to meet their families.
Perhaps this is the price of capitalism. Even first world countries like Singapore are now coming to terms with their migrant workers bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis as they are left quarantined in overcrowded dormitories, with 25 people crammed in a room meant for 10. Not much is different here.
Perhaps this is why the Indian middle class is comfortable with workers violating the lockdown as long as it satisfies their consumption needs but the moment blue-collar workers — distressed, depressed and hungry try to go home, the middle-class sensibility is offended.
Every time migrant workers have faced such a crisis during the COVID-19 lockdown a large section of the society has been overtly comfortable pointing out how they are violating social distancing norms. But this section never considers the capitalist system that led to deplorable living and working conditions for these workers. Either way, most of them are now being housed in equally deplorable makeshift quarantine facilities with the bare minimum medical care and just thermal screening to check for COVID-19 symptoms — far away from the eyes and minds of the 'balcony population'.
Given the abysmal testing rate of India in comparison to other countries, the administration could have considered testing these migrant workers as many could be asymptomatic carriers but Alas, we must have the adequate number of test kits and more expansive testing criteria for that.
Maybe our country's tryst with poverty is such that we have mistaken the patience of migrant workers as resilience — patience that the builders of our capitalist dreams are quickly running out of.