There is no official number for those who have died as they trekked hundreds of kilometers from their cramped, basic rooms in cities to their home villages, but various reports tabulate at least 20 deaths, a likely underestimate. Panicked, hungry, and desperate, these migrant workers feel forsaken by their government. The scenes have been seen around the world, thousands walking in slippers, carrying their children, their few belongings, with barely enough to eat on journeys that will last several days. That is if they get that far. Most are being intercepted and held in camps, now that the Centre has told states to seal their borders. The images were especially jarring after the faux-festive clangour at five in the evening on the day of the Janta Curfew on March 22, when India responded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to show appreciation for those fighting on the frontline of the so-called war against COVID-19 by banging pots. To see just days later, the drawn faces of those suddenly without homes, income, food and, in many cases, family, walking in the dark, in the heat of the afternoon, through the police gauntlet, was to see the real toll taken by COVID-19.
STRANDED: Families reach Pari Chowk in Greater Noida, UP, after walking many kms,to catch a bus to Agra, which never arrived, March 28. Photo by: Bandeep Singh.
Munna Mehta, 38, had a steady job in Bengaluru, making Rs 18,000 a month, until he lost it because of the pandemic. With no income, he and three other men from his village, over 2,000 kilometres away in Bihar, walked to the railway station the day before the Janta Curfew and boarded a train to Ranchi. The plan was to board another train to Bhagalpur. After Modi declared a 21-day lockdown, just a day later, the men could find no further onward transport and tried to walk to Ranchi, only to be stopped by the police and moved into a government shelter. The men say they are grateful that the government has given them a roof over our heads and one meal a day, but their frustration is obvious. Munna tears up when he says he has children awaiting his return. He did not want to stay on in Bengaluru and spend the money he had saved for his family, when he knew he might not be able to make that money again, at least not soon.
Stories like this abound across the country. Kamla Devi, 45, is a widow who worked in a paan masala factory in Kanpur. A labourer under contract, she found herself out of work on March 22. With very little money and three sons under 10 years of age to look after, she tried to make it home to Bahraich. It took her and her sons four days to walk to the Charbagh bus stand in Lucknow, arriving there on the morning of March 28; like them, thousands of others were waiting for buses laid on by the state government to ferry them home. The Uttar Pradesh government had arranged 1,000 buses for migrant workers; the Delhi government, too, provided buses, though Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal would have to field criticism from his counterparts in UP and Bihar for not doing enough to stop migrant workers trying to get home in the first place. The Centre too, mindful of accusations of a lack of planning in advance of its dramatic 8 pm announcement of a nationwide lockdown, has tried to put the ball in the Delhi government’s court. Lieutenant-governor Anil Baijal wrote a letter to Kejriwal in which he expressed disapproval of the state government’s failure to impose the Centre’s lockdown orders. This single lapse, he wrote, could defeat the very purpose of the lockdown’ and impose a very heavy cost on the entire nation.
While state governments have to bear the brunt of the responsibility to feed, house and keep safe those within their borders, legitimate questions are being asked about the Centre’s role in sowing alarm among indigent workers, whether migrants or simply those hundreds of thousands who eke out a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Indian cities. Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel has said in interviews that since the onus is on states to implement the lockdown, the Centre should have extensively consulted with the states. Did the prime minister talk to any state governments before making his unilateral announcement? he asked rhetorically. Prima facie, it’s hard not to accuse the Centre of negligence, of failing to anticipate the effect of its draconian orders on the poor.
The labour ministry has responded by directing all states and Union territories to divert Rs 52,000 crore in unused cess, collected under a welfare scheme, into the pockets of some 35 million registered construction workers, but millions are unregistered and, hence, ineligible. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Rs 1.7 lakh crore stimulus package has been criticised by analysts, including leading economist Jean Dreze, as inadequate because it offers very little immediate relief. Most of the measures, he said in an interview, will take effect after the lockdown and by then millions will be starving, unless they have access to emergency assistance. Development economist Reetika Khera criticised the Centre for not making adequate provisions for casual labour to sustain them through the lockdown. Left to fend for themselves, they had no option but to try to get home. Over 80 per cent of India’s workforce, she says, quoting a 2015-16 employment survey, is employed in the informal sector. A third are casual labourers. For the poor, it has been a double whammy: living in their cramped urban quarters poses a health risk; and, besides, if they can’t earn, how do they survive? She added that schools and community centres could have been converted into shelters and soup kitchens. Few critics of the government deny that a lockdown was necessary, though India’s lockdown, enforced by the lathi-wielding police, is more drastic than nearly any other country’s, just that the poor, and the chaos it has inflicted on their lives appear to have been an afterthought.
In response, the government made a defensive statement insisting that India’s response to COVID-19 has been pre-emptive, proactive and graded. On social media, the ministry of information said the government has made a robust response to the public health crisis right from the beginning. To the Supreme Court, the Centre has attributed what is being described as the largest exodus of migrants since Partition to fake and misleading news reports and social media rumours. On March 31, a two-judge Supreme Court bench, led by S.A. Bobde, the Chief Justice of India, told the media to publish the official version of events around the pandemic.
This is in keeping with the government’s own view of the media as a link between it and the people, as a vehicle for reassurance that the government is meeting the coronavirus challenge head on. India reported its first coronavirus case on January 30. In the two months since, at the time of writing, there have been 38 deaths from 1,637 cases. There is still disagreement in official circles over community transmission. Given how early, even accounting for chronic under-testing, India is in its encounter with the virus, which has cost (by April 1) nearly 43,000 lives worldwide, could it be argued that such a draconian lockdown came too suddenly? Mexico, for instance, to a chorus of international criticism, has put off a nationwide shutdown in cognisance of its impact on the poor. Countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have enacted partial shutdowns or given daily-wage labourers the opportunity to return to their homes. Sweden, admittedly an international outlier, has still kept its parks, restaurants and schools open, only advising social distancing, working from home and banning gatherings of over 50 people.
Epidemiologists, doctors and most health experts across the world have condemned moving too slowly to counter the virus, and would agree that India has been suitably decisive. But at what cost? India’s already sluggish economy has undoubtedly suffered a body blow. The anger at the government’s actions, however, is not fuelled by macro-economic concerns but the very real risk of lives being lost due to hunger and poverty. As many migrant workers told reporters as they made their way towards the border, hunger will kill us before corona does. Rajiv Khandelwal, co-founder and executive director of Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO that works for the welfare of migrant and seasonal labour, acknowledges that our thresholds are being exhausted by COVID-19, but had the lockdown been planned keeping the vulnerable in mind, its effects could have been relatively contained.
The question for the government is if there is still time to mitigate some of the unintended consequences of the lockdown on the poor. Lives have already been lost, but can cash be put in the hands of those who need it immediately? In a society as unequal as ours, COVID-19, a disease of the middle class, at least in its initial spread, affecting those who had travelled abroad, has inevitably had its most distressing impact on the poor. It is, after all, poor migrant workers who have been hosed down with chemicals intended to clean buses. It is they poor who don’t have the option to work, and so make money, from home. It is, largely, the children of the poor whose educations have been interrupted. For the well-off in major Indian cities, children continue to attend school online. And for those less inclined towards relentless productivity, or self-improvement, pizza and ice cream are still being delivered to soothe any hunger pangs during hours of uninterrupted time on social media or streaming services.
Many of the migrant workers encountered on the highways out of Delhi recognise this gap in their experience of the lockdown and those of the comfortable classes. Modi’s solution, one said, is ideal for the rich, but what are the rest of us to do? There is something deeply unedifying, too, about the frequent expressions of outrage on social media over people, mostly poor, who do not adhere to social distancing norms that are a pipe dream in country as densely populated as India. In his weekly radio address, the prime minister acknowledged the particular burden borne by the poor, but, he insisted, there was no other way. Certainly, the weight of expert opinion is on his side, but the obvious distress on highways in various parts of the country surely cannot be excused on the grounds of a necessary lockdown. The Punjab and Haryana High Court appeared to recognise the need for some mitigation, ruling that shops could stay open from 10 am to 6 pm, so long as social distancing and hygiene guidelines were maintained. Taking their cue from the court, Punjab bureaucrats allowed the reopening of some factories and kilns, if the establishments could ensure food and accommodation for workers, as well as abide by social distancing and hygiene rules. But three deaths attributed to COVID-19 in three days forced Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to reinforce a strict curfew until April 14.
Borders have been sealed, after the heartrending scenes since the announcement of the lockdown that will have both shamed and embarrassed the Centre, and states are scrambling to erect shelters. In Greater Noida, India’s only Formula 1 track, the Buddh International Circuit, has been repurposed into a shelter and quarantine facility. In Haryana, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has said there are 467 camps already set up in the state to house up to 70,000 migrant workers, with 10,000 already living in these camps. In Bastar, a doctor who did not want to be named, said schools had already been turned into makeshift quarantines, with up to 100 beds in each. Though there aren’t many patients in them right now, they will fill up, he added ominously. The PM-CARES fund, set up on March 28 for tax-exempt donations, has already attracted a couple of thousand crores to help ease hardship, presumably with the poor being the primary recipients.
It will take a lot of coordination and effort, though, from both the state and Centre to undo the damage done by a decision to hold an entire country under effective house arrest for three weeks without apparent consideration for millions of people so poor that even a few days without work makes it near impossible for them to eat. The World Bank expects that coronavirus will push millions into poverty, many of those, unfortunately, in India, where recovering from the cure will take longer than the 17.8 days that studies say takes most people to recover from COVID-19. I know we are supposed to stay indoors, says 37-year-old Krishna, who left Delhi on March 23, walking from sunrise to sunset to try to reach Bihar, relying on the kindness of strangers for food, and even eating grass for sustenance. But sometimes you have no choice. n
with Sonali Acharjee, Anilesh S. Mahajan, Amitabh Srivastava and Shwweta Punj