There is no official number for those who died walking hundreds of kilometers from their cramped, simple, urban spaces to their home villages, but various reports include at least 20 deaths, one likely underestimated. In panic, hungry and desperate, these migrant workers feel abandoned by their government. The scenes were seen all over the world, thousands walked in slippers, carried their children, their few belongings and barely had enough to eat on trips that would take several days. That’s when they get this far. Most are intercepted and held in camps after the center has ordered states to seal their borders. The images were particularly disturbing after the faux-festive clangour at 5 p.m. on the day of Janta’s curfew on March 22, when India responded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to show appreciation for those fighting on the so-called front War against COVID-19 by hitting pots. Only a few days later to see how the drawn faces of those who suddenly had no home, no income, no food and in many cases no family and walked through the gloves of the police in the dark in the afternoon took the real toll by COVID-19.
STRANDED: Families arrive in Pari Chowk, Greater Noida, UP after walking many miles to catch a bus to Agra that never arrived on March 28th. Photo by: Bandeep Singh.
Munna Mehta, 38, had a permanent job in Bengaluru and earned 18,000 rupees a month until he lost it due to the pandemic. Without income, he and three other men from his village in Bihar, over 2,000 kilometers away, went from Janta to the train station the day before the curfew and boarded a train to Ranchi. The plan was to board another train to Bhagalpur. After Modi announced a 21-day ban just a day later, the men were unable to find any further transportation and attempted to go to Ranchi only to be stopped by the police and taken to a government home. The men say they are grateful that the government has given them a roof over their heads and one meal a day, but their frustration is evident. Munna tears up when he says he has children waiting to return. He didn’t want to stay 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. As a contract worker, she was unemployed on March 22. With very little money and three sons under the age of 10, she tried to return to Bahraich. It took her and her sons four days to go to the Charbagh bus stop in Lucknow, which arrived there on the morning of March 28th. Like them, thousands of others were waiting for buses that were put on by the state government to take them home. The Uttar Pradesh government had arranged 1,000 buses for migrant workers. The Delhi government also provided buses, although Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal had to criticize his colleagues in UP and Bihar for not doing enough to stop migrant workers from coming home at all. The center has also tried to take the ball to the Delhi government’s court because it had been accused of lack of planning before the dramatic announcement of a 20:00 nationwide ban. Vice Governor Anil Baijal wrote a letter to Kejriwal expressing disapproval of the state government’s failure to enforce the Centre’s orders to block the center. This only mistake, he wrote, could spoil the real purpose of the ban and impose very high costs on the entire nation.
While state governments bear the brunt of responsibility to feed, house, and protect those within their borders, legitimate questions are raised about the center’s role in sowing the alarm for needy workers, whether they are migrants or just hundreds of thousands who are leaving a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Indian cities. Chhattisgarh Prime Minister Bhupesh Baghel said in interviews that the Center should consult the states closely as the states are required to implement the ban. Did the Prime Minister speak to a state government before making his unilateral announcement? he asked rhetorically. At first glance, it is difficult not to accuse the center of negligence of not anticipating the effects of its draconian orders on the poor.
The Department of Labor has then directed all states and territories of the Union to divert 52,000 rupees in unused taxes collected under a welfare system into the pockets of around 35 million registered construction workers, but millions are not registered and therefore not eligible. Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman’s stimulus package of 1.7 billion rupees was criticized as insufficient by analysts, including leading economist Jean Dreze, because it offers little immediate relief. Most of the measures, he said in an interview, will take effect after the ban and millions will starve to death unless they have access to emergency relief. Development economist Reetika Khera criticized the center for failing to take adequate casual work arrangements to keep it open. They had no choice but to try to get home. According to a 2015-16 employment survey, over 80 percent of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. A third are casual workers. It was a double blow for the poor: life in their narrow neighborhoods poses a health risk; and besides, if they cannot earn, how do they survive? She added that schools and community centers could be turned into emergency shelters and soup kitchens. Few government critics deny that a ban was necessary, although India’s ban, enforced by the Lathi-wielding police force, is more drastic than almost any other country, except that the poor and the chaos they have inflicted on their lives seemed to have been an afterthought.
In response, the government made a defensive statement, insisting that India’s response to COVID-19 was preventive, proactive, and graded. The Ministry of Information said on social media that the government had provided a robust response to the public health crisis from the start. The center has attributed to the Supreme Court the largest exodus of migrants since the division of fake and misleading social media news and rumors. On March 31, a Supreme Court bank with two judges headed by S.A. Bobde, the Supreme Judge of India, told the media to release the official version of the events surrounding the pandemic.
This is in line with the government’s own view that the media are a link between it and people to ensure that the government is directly addressing the corona virus challenge. India reported its first coronavirus case on January 30. In the two months since the time of writing, there were 38 deaths out of 1,637 cases. There is still disagreement in official circles about community transmission. Given that despite chronic tests, India is already facing the virus that has killed nearly 43,000 people worldwide by April 1, could one argue that such a draconian blockage happened too suddenly? For example, Mexico has postponed a nationwide shutdown before a chorus of international criticism in order to become aware of its effects on the poor. Countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have imposed partial standstills or given day laborers the opportunity to return home. Sweden, admittedly an international runaway, has still kept its parks, restaurants and schools open and only recommended social distancing, working from home and banning gatherings of over 50 people.
Epidemiologists, doctors, and most health professionals around the world have condemned moving too slowly to counter the virus and would agree that India was reasonably crucial. But at what cost? India’s already weak economy has undoubtedly suffered a severe blow. Anger over government action is not fueled by macroeconomic concerns, but by the very real risk that life may be lost due to hunger and poverty. As many migrant workers told reporters on their way to the border, hunger will kill us before the corona does. Rajiv Khandelwal, co-founder and executive director of Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO dedicated to the well-being of migrants and seasonal workers, admits that our thresholds have been exhausted by COVID-19. its effects could have been relatively limited.
The question for the government is whether there is still time to mitigate some of the unintended consequences of blocking the poor. Life has already been lost, but can cash be put in the hands of those who need it right away? In a society as unequal as ours, COVID-19, a disease of the middle class, at least in its initial spread, affecting those who have traveled abroad has inevitably had the worst effects on the poor. After all, they are poor migrant workers who have been hosed down with chemicals intended to clean buses. It is the poor who do not have the opportunity to work from home and thus earn money. Most of them are the children of the poor, whose education has been interrupted. Children continue to attend school online for the wealthy in major Indian cities. And for those who are less prone to relentless productivity or self-improvement, pizza and ice cream are still being delivered to relieve hunger pangs during hours of uninterrupted time on social media or streaming services.
Many of the migrant workers found on the highways outside of Delhi recognize this gap in their experience with the closure and that of the comfortable classes. The Modi solution is ideal for the rich, but what should we all do? The frequent expressions of outrage on social media about people who are mostly poor and do not abide by social distance standards, which are a dream in a densely populated country like India, are deeply unbearable. In his weekly radio address, the Prime Minister acknowledged the particular burden on the poor, but insisted that there was no other way. The weight of expert opinion is certainly on his side, but the obvious need on highways in different parts of the country can certainly not be excused due to a necessary closure. The Supreme Court of Punjab and Haryana appeared to recognize the need for a slowdown and ruled that stores could remain open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. as long as the social detachment and hygiene guidelines were followed. The Punjab bureaucrats, led by the court, allowed some factories and kilns to be reopened if the facilities provided food and shelter for workers, and if the rules for social detachment and hygiene were observed. Three deaths attributed to COVID-19 in three days forced Prime Minister Amarinder Singh to tighten a curfew until April 14.
After the heartbreaking scenes since the announcement of the closure, which has both embarrassed and embarrassed the center, the borders have been sealed and states are trying to build shelters. In the Greater Noida area, India’s only Formula 1 circuit, the Buddh International Circuit, has been converted into a protection and quarantine facility. In Haryana, Prime Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has stated that 467 camps have already been set up in the state, housing up to 70,000 migrant workers, 10,000 of whom already live in these camps. In Bastar, a doctor who did not want to be named, the schools had already been converted into provisional quarantines with up to 100 beds each. Although there are not many patients in them at the moment, they will fill, he added ominously. The PM-CARES fund, which was set up on March 28 for tax-exempt donations, has raised several thousand crowns to alleviate the plight, probably with the poor as the main beneficiaries.
However, it will take a lot of coordination and effort from both the state and the center to reverse the damage done by the decision to effectively hold an entire country under house arrest for three weeks without millions of people being killed are so poor that a few days without work make it almost impossible for them to eat. The World Bank predicts that the coronavirus will drive millions into poverty, many of them in India, unfortunately, where recovery from healing will take longer than the 17.8 days that studies have shown most people need to get rid of COVID -19 to recover. I know we should stay inside, says 37-year-old Krishna, who left Delhi on March 23, going from sunrise to sunset to get to Bihar, relying on the kindness of strangers for food, and even going grass eat to feed. But sometimes you have no choice. n
with Sonali Acharjee, Anilesh S. Mahajan, Amitabh Srivastava and Shwweta Punj