As India, with lakhs of interstate migrants wanting to go back home, faces perhaps its biggest humanitarian challenge since the exodus during Partition, the phrase “headless chicken,” made famous in India by the former envoy to the US, Ronen Sen, while referring to our Members of Parliament, resonates in my mind. ‘Headless’ governance and executive actions have been pretty much the case since the onset of the pandemic. I am choosing to presently dwell merely on the immediate. Ronen Sen got away from a breach of privilege motion in Parliament with an apology and a plea that he at times referred similarly to even his wife. We need and owe more than an apology to our people. In fact, we are presently an apology of a welfare state that we set out to establish post-Independence. The State, with reference to Article 12, has time and again failed the people and the Constitution that we gave ourselves to be governed through the State.
The sudden lockdown was bad enough for the poor and the labourers. Ironically, the relaxation has been even worse. If the plan, if there ever was one, was to allow people to cross state borders and go back to their homes and families, why wasn’t the present scenario that we face thought of as even a possibility?
Take Bengaluru, for example. We have lakhs of migrants from Andhra, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, Sikkim, Mizoram apart from within Karnataka from places like Gulbarga, Bidar, Belgaum and Raichur. The Centre on April 30 indicated that relaxations to allow stranded workers, students, etc., to travel inter-state would be in place in lockdown 3.0. The state government on May 1 started an online registration process. All those who wanted to travel back to their homes had to register, and based on their seniority, they would be accommodated in trains and buses. The inter-state migrants could also submit their applications at Bangalore One centres and BBMP ward offices. Nodal officers were appointed to coordinate with other states. The migrants had to pay. Obviously. Who are we to deny the prophecy of Winston Churchill, “A day will come when even air and water would be taxed in India”! We have actually progressed further, so why not even “the blood and sweat of the working class.”
The question remains, why weren’t the migrants who wanted to go back to their homes registered and their transport needs in place before lockdown 3.0 was announced if the plan was indeed to permit them to travel. Today, we have thousands and thousands standing in lines or just in large groups outside police stations, waiting for their turn to get on the buses or trains. Experts say, we may just about now be heading into community-spreading of Covid-19. Can one even imagine the magnitude of the crisis that lies ahead if this is true? All indicators point toward the disease being in a spreading mode. At this juncture, hordes of people scrambling for space, waiting for their transport, and hoping to somehow or the other get out of here, is not a sight to behold. Social distancing, masks, sanitizers, soaps are a distant dream for these workers, with destination home being their one-point agenda.
By May 10, 4,94,791 people had applied for registration and 54,963 had been approved, and 4,39,718 were under process. On May 20, 100 Shramik trains ferried 1,40,473 passengers to various states from Bengaluru, even as the numbers applying for registration continued to rise drastically. It will be several weeks, if not months, before all of them can be sent home. And we are looking at the statistics of just one city. One can imagine the situation in the rest of the country. An appalling lack of planning and vision caused by total insensitivity as well as absence of compassion threatens not only the economy but the health and lives of every one of this great nation’s people.
Is the lack of planning just a lack of vision or is it lack of empathy? If it is the former it reflects on the mediocrity of our society, if it is the latter then it reflects on our values. Either way, it is a colossal failure of the State in fulfilling its fundamental obligations under the Constitution. The registration process is tedious, the travel costs are high, food, water and shelter, essential commodities, are scarce, as the migrant stranded workers and students scramble to reach ‘home sweet home’.
We may come out of this crisis like the many others we have faced. But will history forgive us for the way we have treated our poor, the downtrodden and the have-nots in their hour of need? Will this period be painted in the history books as the one in which the State failed Mother India in providing justice -- social, economic and political -- in eliminating inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities and, most importantly, in promoting fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual?
As one section of people enjoyed the lockdown, displaying the variety of cuisines that they made and relished in the safety of their homes by posting pictures on social media, the have-nots suffered due to the lack of basic nutrition, water and shelter. The only saving grace was provided by the several philanthropical individuals and organisations who provided food, water and other essentials, much-needed succour, to the needy. As much as we weep over the inadequacies the State displayed in handling this crisis, we will celebrate the great souls who stepped up to help the needy.
(The writer is a Senior Advocate and former Additional Advocate General, Karnataka)