India’s migrant workers will neither forget nor forgive the hunger and humiliation   

India continues to see clashes between restless migrant workers who want to return to their native places and the police

Photo Courtesy: social media
Photo Courtesy: social media

Sujata Anandan

After Partition, India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru regularly visited refugee camps. In one of the camps a woman once caught hold of his collar and screamed, “What did I get out of independence?”

Pandit Ji is said to have replied gently, “The freedom to catch your Prime Minister by his neck and shake him for answers.”

But 72 years later, migrant workers cannot catch even a lowly official or a minister by his collar.

Millions of migrant workers, some with wives and children, lost their livelihood overnight because of the lockdown and for no fault of theirs. When the lockdown was not lifted after 21 days, as promised by the Prime Minister, some of them lost hope and clashed with the police.

Others stoically decided to brave the second lockdown of 18 more days. Many more lost their patience and savings when the lockdown was still not lifted. They decided to hit the road, sell what they had to pay for travel and defied the lockdown and began to walk. Who can possibly blame them?

The Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues did not think it necessary to meet the migrant workers. Even the health minister has not been seen visiting too many hospitals or doctors. He, like the PM and other cabinet colleagues, have been content to take part in video conferences. The Prime Minister in his four televised addresses to the nation has not spared even a word for millions on the road.

But Prime Minister Modi is loath to allow his designer clothes to be soiled. And when Rahul Gandhi sat down on the pavement to listen to passing migrants, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman , who famously had not cared to listen to a kidney transplant patient who had lost all his savings when the Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative (PMC) Bank went down, described the act as drama. Rahul Gandhi, she suggested, should i n s t e a d h av e carried their suitcase on his head and walked with them if he wanted to listen to them.

India lost its soul and moral compass during this Corona crisis. The union government and large sections of the rich and the privileged exposed themselves as uncaring, people with no heart and petty minds. Most rich industrialists did not bother to pay their workers through the first and second phases of the lockdown. Some rubbed salt by announcing that they voluntarily would be taking home 30% less than their annual pay packet of Rupees 15 Crore and more.

When pressure mounted and the Government finally relented and decided to allow special trains to take migrant workers back home, some state governments actually cancelled trains and withdrew requisition for trains. Builders had convinced the Karnataka Chief Minister that construction activities would suffer in the absence of construction workers. It was necessary to detain the workers, the builders’ lobby argued. BJP’s Bangalore South MP Tejaswi Surya described the cancellation of trains as a brilliant move and claimed it would help workers fulfil their dream.

The Coronavirus crisis has brought out the best and the worst in people. But the very worst has been the government’s response. The declaration of a nationwide lockdown with just four hours’ notice without thinking through the consequences was a mistake. Allowing the Home Ministry to supervise the lockdown, instead of Health, and treating the pandemic as a law and order issue was another.

Persistent confusion over standard operating procedures, protocols and benchmark facilities allowed wildly varying conditions in quarantine centres and isolation wards.

With no clarity on OPDs, private hospitals stopped admitting non-Covid patients and insisted on ‘Corona negative certificates’ before admitting them. Similar confusion dogged testing and monitoring. For several weeks the government pretended that the contact tracing app Arogya Setu alone could ensure safety and tried to make it mandatory. Similar confusion about who would pay the train fare of the stranded workers led to workers selling their mobile phones to buy bicycles. The fare itself was arbitrary.

Return of the migrant workers to their home state is clearly not the end of their trouble. Their home states are in no position to ensure gainful employment, which made them leave in the first place. But the large, BJP-ruled states like UP, MP and Gujarat have made their intention to change labour laws to the dis advantage of the workers.

Privatising PSUs, allowing greater foreign participation and diluting labour laws are medium and long term steps that may or may not work out. But in the short run there is little for the workers to look forward to.

If the workers decide against returning to the southern and western states, they might find wheels of industry grinding to a halt. Levels of education and prosperity in these states is such that not many native residents would be interested in taking up the blue collar jobs left behind by the migrant workers.

The workers in turn are unlikely to easily forget that they were abandoned by their employers and the state to their fate and their own meagre resources. They are unlikely to forgive either. In ‘New’ India, they have been left to fend for themselves. They will now look out for themselves. We, the more privileged people of India, deserve that slap on our faces.

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