The lock that downed the migrants

If the citizens fail to demand an answer from the government for treating the migrants, who built India, as expendable, then be assured that we have set out to become an “Andher Nagri”

A migrant labourer crying while talking on the phone in Delhi
A migrant labourer crying while talking on the phone in Delhi
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Amrish Ranjan Pandey and Nirbhay Dubey

We have entered into phase four of the national lockdown and the whole country has been brought to a standstill since an extempore first phase of the nationwide lockdown was promulgated by the Hon'ble Prime Minister on March 24, 2020 at 8 PM, unwarily like many other steps taken by this government since 2014, such as the Demonetisation. Within a brief span of four hours, the whole nation was plunged into the lockdown, thus making it the world’s largest containment, compelling billions into self-quarantine.

A mock lockdown in the name of ‘Janta Curfew’ was experimented on the people with an exhortation to clap and clang from their balconies at 5 PM for 5 minutes on March 22 as a demonstration of gratitude to the health workers engaged in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Just two nights later, PM Modi imposed an impromptu lockdown on the nation without seeking recommendation or taking the states into confidence, for an initial period of 21 days but to continue indefinitely, thus bringing all economic activities and movements to a grinding halt, barring the essential services.

The lockdown, as enforced, brought out the real state of our preparation to the fore, in form of an unimagined, unprecedented and unplanned for ‘migrant worker crisis'. These migrant workers form the largest share of daily wagers in India. The enforcement of the lockdown for these migrants was a massive bombardment as it raised a question mark on their very survival with a near blanket ban on all economic activities throughout the nation. With no means of earning livelihood, they could not even return to their hometowns and villages as no public transport was plying. These people migrate from a place to another in search of livelihood and are largely employed in all sorts of seasonal and momentary jobs with meagre remuneration, which is many a times below the minimum wage criterion. A stark reality of India’s workforce is that over 90% of them are employed in unorganised sectors with no social security or guarantee of regular pay. So, with the announcement of the first lockdown, all hell broke loose upon them, that too at a time when these people were already grasping with a hand-to-mouth existence, specially since 2019-2020 has been one of the worst years for the Indian economy in the last 45 years.

With no means left for survival and a gloomy prognosis of the lockdown being extended beyond the PM’s stipulated period of 21 days, as well as the desperation to meet their already impoverished kin and the unprecedented panic in grocery shops coupled with the unforeseen fear in the man on street, they were propelled to set out for their native places. The desperation of being away from dear ones, the fear of going hungry, the obligation of paying rent to the landlord without any money in the pocket, the price gouging of the essentials by the shopkeepers, and the drying up of savings made them resort to the difficult but necessary venture of walking thousands of miles on feet. The government’s futility in containing them from leaving or, rather, its complicity in driving them out has also came out in the open. A manifestation of this was the convergence of thousands of migrant labourers at Anand Vihar in Delhi and subsequently at the Delhi-UP border without caring much for social distancing or their own health in order to travel to their native places without any mode of travel. It caught the government off guard. It also cleared any iota of doubt anyone had with regard to the unpreparedness of the government.

The PM’s televised address to the nation beseeched the countrymen to tend to the less privileged with all means at their disposal while turning a blind eye to the miseries that could be unleashed on the migrants in absence of necessary travel arrangements was certainly an abdication of duty by the government. The liability to feed the migrants was shifted to the people, their employers, landlords and respective host states.

Migrants have been the most vulnerable segment of the population and are seldom discussed anywhere in the ruling political spectrum which can obviously be attributed to them not being a vote bank. They rarely cast their votes in the election as the necessity of livelihood keeps them away from the natal place where they are registered as a voter. And much to the chagrin, the states in India do not have any reliable data nor do they maintain any such database for the migrant population, thus making it even harder to gauge the extent and numbers of the actual loss of employment caused due to the unplanned lockdown. The numbers quoted in various media reports vary and if we go by the Census of 2011, the figures stand at 45.36 crores who are internal migrants or on move, in search of livelihood. Interestingly enough, it seems that the central government failed to foresee the migrant crisis owing to their “not a vote-bank” characteristic.

Migration is a result of the non-availability of livelihood opportunities and economic activities to associate with, in the commutable range of native residence. This is also a dereliction of duty on part of the respective state governments in generating ample employment opportunities in the home states.

PM Modi’s fondness of misadventure and sending out 8 PM shocks to the nation have accustomed the country to trepidation and its affliction on the people. The lockdown wrought the migrant workers financially, physically, and emotionally and, for some, it also proved as a lost opportunity to see their near and dear ones, such as Sunita Devi from Sasaram, Bihar who failed to see her husband for the last time, due to the lockdown and unavailability of public transportation. As the lockdown has ended even petty employment opportunities, setting off the migrant working population to their mass exodus from cities and towns and towards their native places, the nation seems to be witnessing a horrendous scene. The most severe migrant crisis has hit India since the television set became a mandatory part of an average Indian's living room. The suspension of all means of transportation compelled the migrant workers to trudge on highways and railway tracks. The news of the migrants making a beeline on the roads to their homes, started streaming in every living room. The pandemic transformed into a humanitarian crisis.

The pandemic that induced the lockdown gave in to the predicament of the vulnerable who hitherto had not featured on any government scheme, policy or legislations. Their vulnerabilities are demonstrated in the non-availability of groceries, wages, and shelters. Migrant labourers have been left to fend for themselves both by the government as well as their employers. The State has not provided them with the requisite succour as promised and their employers have turned their back on them, thus leaving them in the lurch. The only means they seem to have for survival was being at their native place.

They have paid with their lives for the callousness of the government of the day. Hundreds of migrants have died in road accidents across the country on their way home. Some of them have even succumbed to fatigue caused by walking thousands of miles, by the heat and lack of food. There has been a sequence of fatal incidents in the country that have wrenched the hearts of the people. The ruling dispensation owes an explanation for the death of every single migrant. In one such incident, 16 migrant labourers were mowed down by a freight train near Aurangabad in Maharashtra who had set out for their homes on foot at dusk to avoid being caught.

Thousands continue to be sardined in trucks, tankers, and mixers by paying exorbitant sums of money. The government’s insensitivity has had a cascading effect on the very builder of the nation, an issue that is sure to haunt the ruling dispensation for decades to come. Those who have made it to their home swear of not returning back to their cities of dreams that have been woven by them. If the people of this country fail to demand an answer and apology from the government for treating these migrants as expendable, then be assured that we have set out to become an “Andher Nagri".

(Amrish Ranjan Pandey is national secretary and national media in-charge of Indian Youth Congress. Nirbhay Dubey is a strategic communication consultant. Views expressed are the writers’ own)

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