Lakhs of migrant workers were stranded without work or proper shelter after the nation-wide lockdown was imposed on March 25. Since then there have been a stream of visuals and stories of distressed workers walking several hundred kilometers to their homes. It has been more than one and a half months since the government told the Supreme Court that there were no migrant workers on the road anymore. The Court took the government at its word, but it is evident that the statement was anything but the truth. In absence of food, jobs and transport, thousands of migrant workers continue their epic journeys home on foot or cycle. Many reach home but some drop dead of exhaustion or illness, either on the way or after reaching their village. Last Friday, a freight train ran over and killed at least 16 home-bound workers in Aurangabad.
The central government was criticised by the opposition parties and human rights activists for not arranging travel facilities for the migrant workers either before or during the lockdown. The government finally buckled under pressure from state governments and opposition parties and announced the movement of migrant workers by organising special trains for them from May 1. However, last week it was reported by news channels that many migrant workers were being made to pay for their ticket fare. Soon it became a political controversy when Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi said that the Congress party would pay the train fare for all migrant workers travelling home.
Caught on the back foot, the Centre attempted to do some damage control. Union Health Ministry’s Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal clarified that “85 percent of the travelling cost is being borne by the railways, while states have to bear the remaining 15 percent”. So, what’s the reality? While supporters of the BJP and the government attacked the opposition parties for politicising the issue saying that migrant workers were not being charged at all, many reports from different states showed that workers who boarded the special trains had actually paid for their tickets. BJP leaders also accused opposition-ruled states like Kerala, Maharashtra and Rajasthan of charging rail fare from migrant workers, while claiming that the BJP-ruled state governments were bearing their share of the travel cost.
One of the points in the travel guidelines issued by the railways for migrants said that the “railways shall print tickets to the specified destination, as per number of passengers indicated by the originating state and hand them over to the local state government authority. The local state government authority shall handover the ticket to the passengers cleared by them and collect the ticket fare and handover the total amount to the railways.” There is no ambiguity in the railways’ guidelines that the rail travel is not free and the migrant workers are required to pay the fare to the local state government authority. The Central government, contrary to the claims by some BJP leaders, is also not bearing 85 percent of the travel cost and is not committed to paying anything to the railways.
Since the state governments had been requesting the Union Government to arrange for transportation of migrants, the Centre shifted the entire travel cost to the state governments. However, a day after the Congress announced that its state units will pay for the migrants’ tickets, as an afterthought, some BJP-ruled states announced that they would foot the bill. By the time the BJP-ruled states announced their decision, some of the non-BJP ruled states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh had already announced that they won’t charge the workers. The needless confusion, claims and counter claims, despite the Central government having known that a majority of migrants had absolutely no income and have somehow sustained themselves through the lockdown is indicative of its insensitivity towards the migrants’ suffering. It is also symptomatic of the larger apathy towards the plight of the poor.
So, was Sonia Gandhi’s offer to pay for migrant workers’ return trip a clever optics or genuine concern for their well-being? Sonia’s offer may have been intended, as alleged by the BJP supporters, to refurbish the Congress’ pro-poor image and win back poor people’s support. But to dismiss it as pure optics is not acknowledging the problem that needed to be addressed. The fact that it was cruel to ask the migrants to pay the fare – which, in many cases they paid, according to media reports – before Sonia made it an issue raises a pertinent question: is our system pro-poor or pro-rich? The coronavirus pandemic has worn away the thin veneer of our $2.8 trillion economy that covers the rusty and battered system, revealing that, whatever prosperity and wealth exists in Indian society, it is useless for the poor in a crisis.
What is the point of growth, development and the tag of fastest growing large economy in the world, if we cannot protect our own people from hunger and malnutrition and cannot provide free travel to jobless migrants who power India’s informal economy? The migrants help build our urban infrastructure, malls and residential complexes. In times of crisis, the poor, the underpaid and disempowered neither have labour rights nor the ability to protect themselves from the virus by self-isolating. Neither can they defy the government which has not extended sufficient protection to them. The purpose of the lockdown was to prevent the outbreak of virus in the community and the virus is only the official cause of what is now a growing pandemic and fatalities. But there are other underlying conditions that cause deaths. Many of those deaths are the result of brutal structural inequality and systemic imbalance in our society.
There comes a point when we must stop and appraise what it means to be a civilised country, what it means to be a developing country. That point being when lakhs of migrant workers are without jobs, many without shelter and want help to return home. The system keeps shifting responsibility from railways to the state governments, while the central government remains silent. That point is when unemployment reaches 27 percent and the government doesn’t do anything. That point is when the nation’s health service is so cash-strapped and ill-equipped that it cannot even provide protective gear to its frontline health workers. That point is also when about 50 crore poor people – 20 crore below poverty line and 30 crore just above it – are most vulnerable and hardest hit by the lockdown, but the government is yet to come to their aid in a substantive measure.
It has been more than one and a half months since the government announced its miniscule relief package for the poor. While India awaits the second relief package, Indians are asked to participate in feel-good, choreographed events – banged thalis and lit candles – which appear to be a cover for poor planning and lack of concern for the poor and migrants.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.