Coronavirus: No 'Vande Bharat’ for migrants

Migrant workers’ endless suffering
Last Updated : 21 May 2020, 20:34 IST

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The COVID-19 lockdown has seriously affected the livelihood options for migrant workers and daily wage-earners. While the government has announced that they will be given free ration even if they are not linked with local fair price shop (FPS), part of the Public Distribution System, which is the case with most migrant workers across India including the brick kiln workers in Kanpur and other places, the ground reality is very different. Families with ration cards are discovering that a number of units from their ration cards have been struck off, reducing their quota of ration; those without ration cards are finding it difficult to get them made; and those who are fortunate enough to get ration cards made are being told by the FPS owners that they will start getting their ration only after three months, the period during which 5 kg of free ration is to be distributed per person.

Even after two months of the unprecedented lockdown, there are no arrangements for the benefit of stranded migrant workers in the country. With no means to go back to their respective villages, having lost their informal sector jobs and left with no means to earn a livelihood, the migrant workers and their families, including young children, have been forced to walk the highways from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, etc., to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere.

Did Prime Minister Narendra Modi not have an idea of the problems the millions of migrant workers were going to face when he imposed the lockdown with four hours’ notice, asked people to stay at home and to clap and bang vessels and light lamps from their balconies? He asked owners of private enterprises to continue paying salaries during the period of the lockdown. That most businessmen, who happily participated in the clapping and lighting lamps on a call by the same Prime Minister, didn't heed his call to pay salaries to their employees is obvious from the mass exodus from cities and industrial centres.

When it became unbearable to stay in small closeted spaces with more people than could be accommodated, with no income for weeks, people became desperate and poured out on to the roads. The fear of dying of hunger and claustrophobia was gnawing more than the threat of coronavirus. The government, which should have arranged transport for them in the first place, was caught unawares. It vacillated between keeping them confined in camps and letting them go home. Apprehensive of a workers' revolt, it continued to play hide and seek. We are already witness to scenes of violent clashes between workers and police trying to contain them. The police were getting confusing signals from the top. The result was total mismanagement. The tragedy of migrant workers in transit is a uniquely Indian phenomenon and hence points to the utter ineptitude of the government.

Truth is also emerging that the government was under pressure from the capitalist class not to let the workers return home for fear that it would result in labour shortages, which would hit their operations. Some in Gujarat went as far as to suggest that punitive action should be taken against migrant workers who returned to their villages. Not willing to grant workers any rights or enter into any long term written contracts with them to offer any kind of social security in the best of times, the owners of private companies now want to treat them like bonded labourers. While unwilling to be held accountable by the government or society for their responsibilities towards their workers, the capitalist class now wants to hold workers hostage. Hence the government did not show the kind of alacrity in helping the migrant workers go home that they did in transporting students from the coaching factories of Kota or pilgrims from Gujarat visiting Haridwar and Varanasi. This compounded the tragedy.

First, when the police would not allow them to travel by road, the workers took the rail tracks route. It was only after the accident near Aurangabad in Maharashtra on May 8 in which a train ran over 16 workers, killing them in their sleep, that authorities allowed them to travel by road, too. Workers took whatever vehicle they could manage -- bicycles, motorcycles, hitching rides on trucks, and autorickshaws from Mumbai and Delhi going into the hinterlands. Police reversed policy again after the Auraiya road accident in which 25 people were killed on May 16, disallowing road travel again. This time, the migrant workers had no option but to sneak through agricultural fields and remote internal roads. Even people engaged in relief operations were finding it difficult to reach help to the needy travellers avoiding the police. The common people had to struggle on three fronts simultaneously -- the threat of coronavirus, the scare of death by hunger and exhaustion, and the highhanded ways of the government.

The government should have anticipated the sheer numbers of workers stranded and accordingly arranged trains and other transport facilities for them to reach their villages as they have a right to life and dignity just like the middle class and the rich of the country. If the government could not do it before imposing the lockdown due to lack of foresight, they could do it even now to alleviate the pain and suffering of millions.

Immediate proper transportation facilities, preferably by trains with feeder bus services, mobile medical facilities for the migrant workers, hygienic, comfortable accommodation with food and water while they are in transit and before they reach their homes should be arranged by the government.

The government should make it clear whether the pompous sounding ‘Vande Bharat’ programme is meant only for Indians stranded abroad or does it have a plan to rescue migrant workers in the country, too?

(Vijaya Ramachandran is an activist based in Kanpur; Pandey is with the Socialist Party (India), Lucknow)

Published 21 May 2020, 16:59 IST

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