The pain of the migrant worker: State must not be selective in concern for Indian citizen

Saturday (March 28) marked the fourth day since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown that has had huge disruptive consequences across the country and differently affected the lives of more than a billion people

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Saturday (March 28) marked the fourth day since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown that has had huge disruptive consequences across the country and differently affected the lives of more than a billion people.

While containing the potential for a galloping public health challenge was no doubt the highest priority when Modi took his decision (March 24), the fact that the country was totally unprepared is now becoming tragically visible in different clusters across India. Predictably the more privileged citizen has been cushioned to a large extent and the state has taken a number of enabling measures to ensure that the basic essentials are available – albeit in a restricted manner.  The challenge for this demography is not about life and hunger but discomfort due to being confined to one’s home and uneven wi-fi access.  

The divide and pain is most stark when it comes to the migrant worker, the homeless citizen and those who do not have the safety of home and immediate family or a circle of friends or community that can be a modest safety net in times of such a crisis. Images of migrant workers with bewildered children on their shoulders, walking back to their villages in UP and Rajasthan from the national capital Delhi is heart-rending.

The callousness of the state has also been on display and local police have been captured  on video – either being ‘lathi-happy’ or forcing those fleeing Delhi to squat and undergo physical punishment.  With no support from the government by way of transport arrangements and all local buses and other modes of transport being under clampdown, the plight of those caught in this corona trap is tragic. Many have had no food or water for the last few days since they decided to ‘walk’ home and It is feared that more  lives will be lost due to such deprivation than the actual corona virus.

The state alas has been selective in its concern for the corona affected citizen. While it is commendable that India was able to air-lift most of its stranded citizens from foreign locales, Delhi  has not shown the same compassion for the less privileged in the capital and elsewhere  who have had to flee to rural safety after the Modi diktat that citizens have to ‘stay-home’ to ‘stay-safe.’

Ironically, while one cross-section of India is being encouraged to watch Ramayana on TV to deal with the stay-at-home directive and post pictures of themselves engaged in such righteous and recreational  activity, the hungry migrant workers are  struggling with small children, aged relatives and ALL  their meagre belongings  – trudging  mile after mile in rain and sun to some semblance of survival.

This lack of concern and compassion by the Modi government was noted by anguished and angry citizens who observed a few  senior ministers and members of the ruling party exchanging pleasantries on social media about watching the Ramayana / Mahabharat  and, in one case, accusing the migrant workers of trying to utilize their "forced 'chhutti' (holiday) to catch up with their families."

Some noted the plight of the migrant worker walking home in a breezy manner and encouraged local industrialists to provide food and water en route!  This is totally reprehensible  and  goes against the self-image that the BJP and the RSS have sought to project  of themselves as empathetic institutions that have been forthcoming to assist the needy in times of national calamities. Political parties across the board have disappointed the nation.

This visible abandonment of the poor as symbolized by the migrant worker fleeing Delhi will be a heavy cross that the Modi government and proximate state leaders (UP, Bihar and Rajasthan)  will have to bear. It was quite possible to provide buses or special trains for the thousands in Delhi who wanted to go home to do so in an organized manner – in much the same manner that aircraft were sent to locations like Iran and Italy.

The state, whether at the centre or in Lucknow, Patna and Jaipur abdicated and left the poor and vulnerable to their own devices in the time of corona. Modi, who has mastered the 8 PM sermon to the citizen, must make amends even now.

Many institutions, NGOs  and  individuals with the resources would have stepped up to the plate – if requested to do so by the government. If state machinery and select private sector infusion can organize a flawless reception of lakhs of Indians for a US President, surely the sea of poor citizens  who have been dislocated by the corona directive need similar attention to detail.

A mea culpa is called for by the Indian State and visible compassion shown - for the citizen at the bottom of the pyramid in the long haul ahead in dealing with the corona tsunami.

(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi)