Migrants’ exodus shows up a heartless society

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on May 19, 2020 Published on May 19, 2020

Tormented: Migrants feel twice-cursed   -  KVS Giri

Our cities, dehumanised by the pandemic, have turned a blind eye to the poor and vulnerable

We may pat ourselves on the back on how well a densely populated country of 1.35 billion people and moderate healthcare facilities handled the corona pandemic. We may cock a snook at the doomsayers who predicted Covid-19 “will rip through India like a typhoon”, etc. That didn’t happen; we closed our international borders in time, quarantining travellers when required, and quickly ramped up our health infrastructure. Nearing two months of lockdown, we have got less than one lakh infections; scepticism about government data notwithstanding, India has done far better than expected in controlling the pandemic.

But where we have totally failed, both our government and civil society, is when it comes to our poor, particularly migrant workers. Long after this pandemic is gone — I have no doubt this too will pass — India’s greatest shame will be how it failed millions of its poor daily wagers who had travelled thousands of kilometers away from their homes in search of a livelihood.

The government needs to answer if there wasn’t a single person with a heart in the top level administration that planned the strategy to contain the spread of the virus and the inevitable lockdown? Why was nothing done to give sufficient notice and run special trains/buses/trucks to enable the millions of migrants far away from their homes to reach back. Those of us who were overseas, did get that notice and dashed back home, to be put under either self or institutional quarantine.

Migrants left high and dry

But the migrants, who don’t have the same means as we the privileged, were left high and dry to fend for themselves. Yes, this may sound like a broken record but during the last couple of weeks, the heartbreaking scenes that we have seen of men, women, children undertaking impossibly long journeys home on foot under the merciless summer sun, leave an indelible blot on we as a country and a people.

Images of migrants taking a break on roads, eating a modest helping of puffed rice, sleeping on railway tracks, being run over by speeding cars/trains. More deaths, more suffering, more indifference, more atrocities, more cruelty — your tears may run dry but not their stories of suffering.

Social media accounts have surfaced of people, ordinary people, not NGOs or others in the voluntary sector, coming out of their homes with their cars, pick-up trucks, two-wheelers or just backpacks stuffed with bread, biscuits, water and even cooked meals to feed the huge number of migrant workers on an unending journey home. Eye witnesses and journalists have told me that these people display no rancour, no ill will towards anybody, and accept the food quietly, saying whatever happens on the way, they won’t stop their journey home.

Most of them are confident that in the villages there will be sufficient food “pet bharney ke liye” (to fill our stomachs). Or else, “we will starve to death; at least there will be someone there to cry over our bodies,” is a common sentiment expressed.

In Chennai last week, a group of volunteers decided to do a little more than feed the hundreds/thousands of migrants near Red Hills who were walking towards their homes in Bihar. They formed some kind of a loose network to pick up as many as they could in their cars.. drive them for 10, 15, 25 km, whatever they could. And then hand them over to another bunch of volunteers who would take them further. But they hit an impasse at the Andhra border. The borders were locked and the police would allow neither the vehicles nor those walking to cross the border.

In other places across the Andhra border, the migrant workers who insisted on continuing were beaten brutally. Elsewhere, they were packed into buses and, look at the irony, driven back to Tamil Nadu. It’s not only the Andhra police or administration; Uttar Pradesh has done the same and so have many other States.

A dehumanised society

One thing is certain, this pandemic has dehumanised us completely. Yes, the police are over burdened, tired and the same may be true for others who provide service and surveillance during this pandemic. But there is no excuse for tormenting those who are helpless, powerless, and already tormented and persecuted.

Another thing that is certain is, for a few months at least, we the privileged will struggle to get the skilled Bihari or Bengali carpenters, or workers from UP to build, clean, paint or repaint our homes. I do hope the millions who have seen the darker side of our heartless cities and the governments who run them, decide to stay put at home.

Published on May 19, 2020

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