A few days ago, we woke up to the cover images of scattered food and clothes on a rail track in Maharashtra. The ongoing pandemic was trying to display the distress of 20 migrant workers escaping the grey skies of cities. Could the country opening its gate for limited train services from today be a feather touch to the migrants and the rest stranded? Even in the sigh of relief, the haunted journey and struggles of lakhs of migrants just don’t quit our stained hearts.
On 25th March 2020, the lockdown in the country was welcomed dreadfully by the migrant workers. They came to the cities with wilder hopes to make some kind of living and are now opening their palms to get one timely meal and a shelter. When the centre allowed inter-state movement for the stranded migrant workers on 29th April, they got on the roads with their tiny bundles, uncertain of the distance they had to bear. Most of them had only a maximum of 3 digit cash in their pockets and few supplies to fill their stomachs.
Since the lockdown, the work sites were closed and so were the contracts. These civilians on their way back home were hit emotionally when asked about the paths they covered. The trucks passing through the highways became a blessing for few but most of the drivers charged more than 400 rupees. This left them with no more money and no more hopes.
For these workers, its not the virus that is laying them on death beds, but the summer sun strokes, trucks out of control, unexpected trains and the hopeless life leading to suicide.
The media of our country are yet another ill natured creation we come across. Having the permit to cover the stories during lockdown, including that of these pedestrians, not an act of kindness was to be expected from them.
In dozens of news channel videos including the highly reputed, regardless of the political views, the news anchors run from one migrant to the other asking about the amount of food left and taking out the empty bottles from them, showing them to the camera. Every time these people expect at least a bottle of water from these people they are left with the behavior of these egocentrics.
The conscience of these workers and all the Indian well wishers were stabbed with unforeseen events when they reached back home. Confounded by dread, they were met with tear gas and lathi charge. In UP, these migrants were sprayed with bleach as if they were some kind of pests.
Hundreds of migrant workers near the Vareli village in Surat faced brutal beating from the police while demanding arrangements to be sent back home.
The responsibility of the stranded migrants, the register of their movement and the standard protocols regarding them was handed to the state government. At the very beginning, most of the states failed to provide proper testing and screening to these migrants and their numbers were also not recorded. A bus that left from Ajmer Sharif, Rajasthan’s red zone area, was bulked with 43 migrants to Assam. The Assam government condemned Rajasthan for not observing the physical distancing norms when 5 among them tested positive.
Again, the states were playing a wild card game in picking the expenses of these workers. West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banarjee, declared that they would meet the urge to bring back the stranded on April 23rd but indeed turned out to open its border gates much later due to the high fatality rates. The buses from Jharkhand returned when Bengal claimed to have no facilities to receive and quarantine the migrants.
The declaration that 85% of the travel expenses will be the Central government’s burden was much of a fairy tale that never deemed to happen. The Delhi government bore the expenses of the migrants who were returning to Bihar in the Shramik Express. Bihar made clear that the compensation for these workers will be provided in the quarantine centers when Delhi asked for reimbursement. A large expense of the migrants stuck in Maharashtra was handled by the Congress Party.
In the trauma of quick outspread of the virus, the states are not ready to welcome more positive cases. The states are waving a black flag when it comes to the migrants stuck in Maharashtra, the Indian epicenter of Covid-19. With the hospitals of each state overflowing with patients every day, the containment of thousand others is impossible. Also, the number of institutional quarantine centers is so low that those who returned home are feebly kept in home quarantine, risking others in contact.
Meanwhile, the richer states like Karnataka, Haryana and Punjab fear the exodus of the migrant workers. The domestic and industrial labor provided by them is one among the major means of industrial and economical revival. The Karnataka government asked the workers to adjust by staying in the state until the work sites commence. When the lockdown extended, the government asked them to leave and the rations provided to them were stopped completely.
Whacked by the black humor of Indian politics and policies, people started on foot to reach Hyderabad and then to continue on their way back home. 1 lakh of migrants registered when the government arranged trains to send them back.
The huge number of registered migrants startled the government. The worries regarding the economy blacked out the ambit of hopes of the registered migrants when the government cancelled the trains. The latter defended the questioning and the critical pioneer, the opposition’s inquiry by claiming that the home states didn’t have adequate measurements to keep them and hence they rejected to send the trains.They had no other option than locking themselves inside schools and marriage halls.
SWAN, the Stranded Workers Action Network, is highly active in helping those stuck amidst the lockdown. As per the data, the most number of SOS calls they receive daily are from migrant workers. SWAN collects the data of these people and they provide food rations to those in extreme difficulties.
The migrant workers should have been sent back long before the enforced lockdown. Poorly administered government bodies, and the inadequate facilities given to the daily wagers migrated to other cities are the main cause of the problems faced by them. The contractors hiring them should have proper licenses to bear their responsibilities.
Even though there are organizations and political parties taking efforts to reach out some help to the stranded, more of such activities should be encouraged. Kerala has set an example by providing ration cards to the migrant workers to survive their days in the confinement. Labor laws should be amended to ensure better protection to them.
This time, these horrendous strings of days, lead us to witness and experience the harsh yet realistic side of our lives and our surroundings. Today or tomorrow we may become the prey. So there is no time to waste but to think and act wisely and carefully, and to be generous to the affected. Mistakes should be restudied and then let’s recompose the human being in us to sow the light in the lives of the deprived.
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