Destiny’s Abandoned Children

Scores of heart-wrenching images of labourers walking several miles to reach their homes have highlighted the pain and misery of the migrants
but the government responded to their plight in a cold-blooded attitude

By Robin Keshaw

The distance from Auraiya in Uttar Pradesh to Bokaro in Jharkhand is roughly 800 kms. That’s the distance some of the injured migrants from Auraiya accident had to travel in an open truck, to reach their homes.

Government officials in Auraiya thought it’s wise to save some resources and packed the dead bodies of the migrants, who passed away in the highway collision in Auraiya, in the same truck.

The mere image of injured migrant travelling with dead bodies, few feet away from them, sends a chill down the spine. Contrast this to the images of Indians, who were stranded abroad, sitting in Air India planes with all protective gears in place.

More than 140 flights were arranged for them in quick successions, under the Vande Bharat scheme.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS IN AURAIYA THOUGHT IT’S WISE TO SAVE SOME RESOURCES AND PACKED THE DEAD BODIES OF THE MIGRANTS, WHO PASSED AWAY IN THE HIGHWAY COLLISION IN AURAIYA, IN THE SAME TRUCK. THE MERE IMAGE OF INJURED MIGRANT TRAVELLING WITH DEAD BODIES, FEW FEET AWAY FROM THEM, SENDS A CHILL DOWN THE SPINE

Over the course of last 50 days, an unprecedented migrant crisis has precipitated across several states in India, affecting millions of people. Government has responded with its atypical, apathetic attitude towards these people.

Ironically, in certain cases, government has aggravated the situation with its mishandling and unpreparedness. Scores of heart-wrenching images and videos circulating across social media have highlighted the pain and misery of the migrants, but are enough to portray the impact of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

Helter Skelter

Dialling the clock few week back, it was March 11 when WHO declared Covid-19 as pandemic. On March 19, PM Modi addressed the nation and called for Janta Curfew on March 22nd.

There was not hint of lockdown in his address. The call was successful and the curfew was followed to a large extent across the states.

When people were expecting more clarity about India’s preparedness and response to the Covid situation, PM Modi announced a complete lockdown on March 24, with just four hours of notice given to the 135 crore citizens of our country to brace themselves for a situation, which has never happened in our country before.

As per 2011 census, the migrant population in India is roughly around 45 crores or 37% of the country’s population. A research study by Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RISDC) estimated the number of inter-state migrants to be about 6.5 crores.

This was the population which was to get severely affected by the lockdown announcement. On 26th March, Modi government announced financial package to deal with the Covid situation.

There was no mention of any relief package for the migrant workers, highlighting the callous attitude of government towards the migrant population.

By March 27th, the exodus had started and the migrants were on the road. The state governments did little to support the outflowing migrant population and rather chose to issue vacuous statements.

Rumours and misinformation were spreading wildly and were fanning the anxieties of the migrant workers. Visuals from Anand Vihar bus terminal on March 28th demonstrated the confusion and concern among the people who wanted to go back to their homes.

The very next day, Ministry of Home Affairs set up 11 empowered groups to coordinate emergency response during the lockdown. There was no group to look into the migrant worker crisis. Ironically enough, MHA issued an order restricting the movement of inter-state migrants.

As the days passed, confusion over the state of migrant workers persisted and their anxiety grew over the time. Governments did little to assuage their fears and worry.

On April 3rd, Mr Modi appeared again on the television sets and called for citizens to support the lockdown by switching their lights at 9 pm sharp. Millions praised and followed his gesture.

However, he missed out on the mention of migrant workers, again. By mid-April, the situation had worsened and migrants took to streets in different parts of country.

In Surat, they clashed with the police and pelted stones. Thousands gathered outside Bandra station, after hearing a rumour that government has arranged for trains for their travel back home.

On April 19th, MHA allowed the movement of migrant labourers within the states and UTs, and issued a vaguely drafted SOP for the local authorities to follow.

The invisible kind

It took almost a month for the decision makers in the comfort of their AC offices to realise that migrants need to go home. Not just the decision makers, the consensus making middle class of India was equally, if not more, aloof of the crisis, until the disconcerting visuals of migrants walking on the highways hit their TV screens.

A large section of opinions on social media blamed it squarely on the migrants, citing their lack of awareness and understanding of the situation. It seems the urban realpolitik of our times has conveniently ignored a large section of our society, which keeps our cities thriving.

A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University in 2019 estimates that 29% of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers.

Large percentage of workers in the different sectors are comprised of migrant workers. As per the report of the Working Group on Migration, which came out in 2017, “In manufacturing in urban areas, 38% of the male workforce is composed of migrant workers, with a similar share in modern services.”

In the construction sector in urban areas, 67% of the female workforce is of migrants.

Priya Deshingkar is a professor of migration and development at the University of Sussex. In her report, almost a decade ago, she released an estimate of 100 million circular migrants in India by extrapolating industry estimates.

The calculations based on these estimates indicated that the economic contribution of migrants was around 10% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP).

An important point to notice is that these reports are merely estimates and they extrapolate and project the census data based on empirical studies. It also signifies the fact that despite being in such high numbers and contributing a substantial amount to our GDP figures, the migrant workers remain inconsequential to the socio-political milieu of our country.

Mounting miseries

CSDS conducted ‘Politics and Society Between Elections Survey’ from 2017-19, which found out that the monthly household income of 22% daily and weekly wagers is up to Rs 2,000; of 32%, between Rs 2,000 and 5,000; of 25%, between 5,000 and 10,000; of 13%, between Rs 10,000 and 20,000; and of 8%, more than Rs 20,000.

A part of this money is sent back to their families as remittances, leaving quite little savings for the daily and weekly wagers. The immediate effect of lockdown was felt on these workers as the paused economic activities meant no income for them.

Since most of them are engaged in the informal sector, they didn’t have any kind of employee benefits or income cushion to sustain them beyond few days.

Most of these migrant workers don’t have the ration cards of the state they were working in. This means that they were not able to avail the government rations in these states.

Very few state governments have taken to provide cooked meals to the stranded people. Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) conducted a survey in which they interviewed 11,159 migrant workers stranded in various states.

It was found out that between April 8 and April 13, more than 90% didn’t receive rations from the government. Close to 90% of those surveyed did not get paid by their employers. From March 27 to April 13, 70% of the surveyed workers had only less than ₹200 left with them.

GOVERNMENTS ACROSS THE SPECTRUM WERE MUTE SPECTATORS FOR THE LONGEST POSSIBLE TIME. RATHER THEY CAME DOWN WITH HEAVY HANDS ON THE MIGRANTS WHO HAD GATHERED AT BUS STANDS OR RAILWAY STATIONS, IN A HOPE TO RETURN TO THEIR HOMELANDS

Civil society organisations and volunteers in different regions have done quite a lot in providing food supplies to the migrant workers and they held the fort for quite some time.

However, their overall efforts fell short in front of the sheer scale of stranded workers. Adding to their financial misery, rumourmongering kept adding fuel to the panic.

Many workers believed that either Covid or the hunger is going to end their lives, hence it’s much better to die at home rather than in some foreign land.

Government’s apathy

Governments across the spectrum were mute spectators for the longest possible time. Rather they came down with heavy hands on the migrants who had gathered at bus stands or railway stations, in a hope to return to their homelands.

On April 21st, Supreme Court disposed of the petition for wages for migrant workers because they were satisfied with the government’s efforts. Ministry of Home Affairs on April 29th ordered allowing inter-state movement of migrant workers by buses.

However, there was no mention of implementation mechanism and financial costs, which effectively rendered the order meaningless.

By April end, lakhs of impoverished working-class Indians had walked, cycled, hitchhiked home, sometimes paying exorbitant amount to truck drivers for a passage back home.

As the second wave of this humanitarian crisis began after the MHA order, it brought even more tragedy with it. Sixteen workers were run over by a freight train while sleeping on the tracks.

As per an analysis by SaveLife Foundation, an independent, non-profit organisation, the death toll in road accidents among migrant workers at 159 between March 24 and May 18. The analysis estimated that 630 migrants were injured in these road mishaps.

Amidst this unprecedented crisis, government’s lackadaisical attitude towards the stranded workers is worth noticeable. It took the central government 50 days to announce food support for 80 million Indians who are not part of the public distribution system.

The actual disbursal of foodgrains, however, will take longer. After a lot of inertia and confusion, government started the Shramik trains to ferry the workers back to their home states. However, lack of clear guidelines proved to be grossly chaotic for the state governments.

Indian Railways was to supply a train only when both the origin state and the destination state had jointly made a request. There was ambiguity around who will pay the fare for the trains, resulting in mega political slugfest between state governments.

Many workers had to pay to the tune of thousands to get a ticket on the Shramik trains. There were no streamline processes for screening the workers who wanted to travel, as screening was made mandatory. Overall, the lockdown gymnastics showed that there was a complete dereliction of duty from government towards this crisis.

Salvage the shramiks

We can’t go back in time to fix the wrongs which have already been done to the workers. Even at this stage, the government can save the country from utter humanitarian wreckage if it accepts its responsibility in making lives better.

There have been calls, suggestions and requests from social experts and economists, which government should pay heed to.

Jean Dreze has written about how the FCI godowns are full while people are likely to starve. Amartya Sen , Raghuram Rajan , Abhijit Banerjee have recommended that the government should follow a food and cash model, where it keeps providing food and ration as well as transfers enough cash in hand for the workers to navigate next few months.

The transport facilities provided by government is still not sufficient. It needs to ramp up its data systems to identify the people who still want to go back home and facilitate the whole process in close coordination with state governments.

The lockdown and the ensuing socio-economic turn of events has given an opportunity for our society to take a step back and think about our social constructs.

The migrant crisis and the accompanying visuals have shaken the conscience of people who were largely aloof about the precarity of migrant workers.

It has also given us a chance to rethink about our social constructs which perpetuates and widens the existing inequalities in our world. Governments have the opportunity to reimagine our social security structures and invest more in empowering the lowest strata of the society through quality universal education and health.

It is a hope that the shed tears and surged emotions wouldn’t go into waste and will fundamentally shift the way we operate as a society.

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