Human species, optimistic that he is, always wants to see the brighter side of any problem. There is nothing wrong in it. On the contrary it is good as it keeps the drive going and instils an attitude of never getting bogged down. This was reflected in fighting the pandemic Covid – 19 as well. There have been scores of articles by various commentators and columnists trying to show what this pandemic has taught us by forcing us to return to our basics. However, there is a whole list of things which this pandemic has taken away from us. The most important, to my mind, is the idea of India that has taken a beating.
Our answer to the pandemic started on a positive note with Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealing to all Indians to observe ‘Janata Curfew’ on 22nd March 2020 to show solidarity in our fight and to break the Corona chain. The entire nation, with all state governments chipping in, followed the call of the Prime Minister and united for this cause. The lockdown that followed was also observed by the citizens with full commitment. But the suddenness of the lockdown without a proper support mechanism for the daily wage workers created a sense of panic among them. With their livelihoods snatched and no direct help from the government, and landlords of most of them unwilling to give any concessions, they probably thought that it was the end of the road for them. As all modes of transport had stopped, many of them started their journey back to their native places on bicycles, auto-rickshaws, ‘thelas’, while a majority of them set on foot. The Central government issued dictum to the state governments to ensure that the migrant workers do not leave their place of residence. While all state governments declared that they were taking necessary steps to ensure this, nothing concrete happened on ground. Thus the exodus of the daily wagers from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Indore as well as other smaller industrial towns started. This became more pronounced as the third lockdown was announced. It became difficult for various state governments to keep even those migrant workers on hold who did not leave at the first instance. It was now all round chaos. ‘Bharat’ was on the streets as India witnessed helplessly!
The reverse migration of these daily wage earners to their native places presented horrific scenes which were not seen in independent India after partition. Pregnant women on foot with a few delivering on road and then walking again; labourers walking barefoot in 40 degrees heat, developing foot sores; a mother pulling trolley suitcase with child sleeping on it; a man with his wife on the carrier of his bicycle and child on the rod falling asleep while he paddles huffing and puffing; a fifteen year old girl riding more than a thousand kilometres on her bicycle with her father as the pillion rider; such examples are numerous. Many died: some coming under train while falling asleep on the railway track due to tiredness of the arduous journey, some being overrun by vehicles on highways, some when the vehicles in which they were travelling met with an accident.
However, the most important point is why did the migrant workers residing in one part of the country felt desperate to return to their home states. Most of them are from the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh who migrate to the industrial states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and to other industrial towns. However, people of these industrial states also go to other states for work, although their number is less. Hence, people from all across India migrate to other parts of the country. This kind of migration also helps to spread and strengthen the bond of Indianess as it also helps people of various states to know and understand the language, culture and mores of other states of the country. These migrant workers are the most important entity for running the wheel of the economy of the state where they work. It thus becomes the moral responsibility of all state governments to ensure that they take care of these migrants in the same manner as they do of the residents of their state. This should not only be done under normal circumstances, but also when times are bad, as in the present scenario.
Sadly, as soon as a lockdown started, the migrant workers in various states did not get the care and support from the government there. They started losing the sense of belongingness which prompted them to return to their own state. Is it not the most unfortunate thing to happen? Why should a person from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar residing in Mumbai feel the need to return to his/her native place? Or, why should a person from West Bengal working in Indore be required to leave the city and return home? Are they residing in a foreign land? We have witnessed such scenarios when Indians had to return from abroad in crisis situations. But those were foreign lands. Here it is India and if a person of one state is working in another state and is feeling the need to leave it due to a crisis then it is an assault on the idea of India. In the present scenario, hundreds of Shramik special trains are taking persons of respective states back to their native states. The migrant workers returning to their state are coming with a heavy heart as they know that they have been disowned by the state where they were sweating and contributing to its development, of course for a living. Somewhere they are bound to have the feeling that they are not equal citizens in other states. This is a blow to the idea of India which allows people of one state to work and settle in other states.
In recent times we have seen the pitch for nationalism rising and attaining the centre stage of politics. That India has to be strong and united is beyond doubt and does not need any discussion. But can only rhetoric help? There needs to be concrete action on the ground. Until and unless people of one part of India do not get equal treatment in other parts of the country, there will be loose ends. We have to learn from this migrant crisis. The government must act immediately. At the first instance the respective states should ensure that no more migrants leave the state of their work. Anyhow, the economy will start moving again and at that time the workforce will be required. It is thus in the interest of various state governments to retain whatever migrant workers are left. They should be provided with shelters, food and they may temporarily be engaged in some work, maybe under some government scheme. The states may have to incur expenditure on this exercise but in the long run it will yield rich dividends. On a long term basis, a law may be enacted which makes it mandatory for the state governments to take care of migrant workers in times of such crisis so that they do not have to return to their native states. Until we undo this damage, the idea of India will greatly suffer and the gulf between ‘Bharat’ and India will only increase further.
Dr. Debarshi Sen is Registrar, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta (CSSSC). The views expressed are personal