Water packets being passed as migrants travel in trucks to reach their hometowns at the Lucknow-Kanpur national highway.
Water packets being passed as migrants travel in trucks to reach their hometowns at the Lucknow-Kanpur national highway.

They have extended the lockdown yet again. India will remain shut till May-end, but the economy will begin to open in instalments despite some States still being in the grip of the coronavirus. The national capital, for instance, had more than 10,000 cases on Monday with all districts in the red zone. Yet, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has permitted local buses, private vehicles, auto and e-rickshaws and markets to open immediately with a few restrictions such as shops opening on odd-even days, etc. Likewise, other States too, have eased restrictions while extending the lockdown till May 31. Curfew from seven in the evening to seven in the morning during the lockdown, as advised by the Centre, is hard to enforce. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is disinclined to enforce it anyway.

The varying degrees of relaxations in various States and UTs, are underpinned by the expectation that people would voluntarily observe social distancing and take other necessary precautions to keep the deadly virus at bay. Despite the extension of the lockdown, there seems to be a growing feeling in the government that the coronavirus threat is here to stay for some time and, therefore, it would be impossible to wait for it to vanish before opening the economy. Not opening the economy could become a greater source of trouble for the ordinary people. As it is, the lockdown itself has resulted in untold misery and hardships for tens of thousands of migrant workers. They have been forced to head homewards from cities and towns by whatever means available, very often risking the long trek on foot with their meagre belongings, little children and sick parents on their weary backs and shoulders with no food and water available on the way. The plight of migrants exposes the huge fault-lines running through our entire system of governance. No government, centre or state, including Kerala where restive migrants were on the street to demand food and facilities to return home, has acquitted itself well when it comes to the wellbeing of the migrants.

Admittedly, governments were torn by an irresolvable dilemma: risking the return of lakhs of migrants to their villages carried the danger of the coronavirus spreading to the hinterland which is far worse served by the healthcare system than even our cities and towns. It was also not possible for any authority to assess correctly the time-span of the lockdown given how it all depended on the spread of the pandemic. In case the economy were to restart at the end of the lockdown, migrant workers would be required back on their jobs. These were difficult questions. Yet, governments mishandled the crisis. Provision of food and shelters was inadequate for the number of people desperate to return home. An outright cash assistance would have helped to dissuade a section of the migrants from leaving. Unfortunately, governments were in further financial stress due to the huge additional expenditure involved in fighting the pandemic. Also, it was suggested that a huge fleet of buses ought to have been pressed into service to ferry the migrants home, but that would have ignored the heightened risk of the virus spreading due to the complete neglect of social distancing norms and of a minimal personal hygiene regime.

As we said, what looks like a huge bungling was an outcome of a hazy idea about the spread of the pandemic and its intensity and the fact that a vast majority of migrant workers were either self-employed or worked in the informal sector. All these factors combined to worsen their plight. It was a terrible shame that tens of thousands of poor and hungry men, women and children ought to have felt obliged to head for home because the relatively well-off cities and towns had turned their backs on them just when they needed them the most. Not just governments, all of us Indians let down our fellow countrymen. Cursing politicians for the humongous human tragedy we actually seek to excuse ourselves for what migrant workers have had to go through. The private chawl-owner who threw them out from the tiny hovels because they did not pay the rent, the housewife who refused to pay the cleaning woman for the lockdown period, the kirana store owner who denied his help money for the time the store was closed…the list of such defaulters is long. They are all guilty of aggravating the plight of migrant workers.

A sense of fellow-feeling and kindness deserted us when it was needed the most. We are guilty. Period.

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