Every time I turn the corner into the lane of my house, I never fail to notice my famous Bombay Sandwich maker who has been permanently stationed there since decades.
As the diabolical pathogen, the coronavirus, spread its deadly tentacles into India, one began to see that the regular crowd that thronged his contraption where he made his sandwiches had dramatically thinned. The last I saw him was one day before the Janata curfew on March.
Sounding quite disconcerted and yet maintaining a cheerful disposition he said that his business had slumped by over 60%, but he was quite optimistic that things would turn around. Unbeknownst to him India would soon head into a severe lockdown preventing him from being able to return to his makeshift real estate.
His daily earnings would now be wiped out completely. An uncertain dark future awaited him as like everyone else he had probably no clue as to where his next income would come from. He was not the only one who was psychologically devastated and economically impoverished overnight.
There were at least 80 million more like him suffering a similar predicament. India had opened the floodgates to a humongous humanitarian crisis of its migrant population.
When the world’s second largest populated country with 138 crore people went abruptly into the most stringent lockdown since the outbreak of the pandemic with a 4-hour notice, it was creating a man-made disaster that could have been easily avoided with some pragmatic planning. It is astonishing to believe that the experienced apparatchiks and the elected politicians were oblivious of the lives of those who live at the bottom of the pyramid.
Come election time, most politicians woo the poor, underprivileged, marginalized sections of society with phantasmagoric promises of eternal welfare. In a stunning manifestation of contemptuous indifference, the government it seemed had not factored in the insane disruption that would be caused because of the sudden shutdown. That daily wage labour, contract employees, temporarily employed and those who were self-employed like my sandwich maker would have nowhere to go. With no essential goods available and all restaurants shut, where would they get their food from?
Unlike the urban middle-class that could order online deliveries, they had no access to even basic services. And the unremitting escalation of the vector only accentuated their miseries. But what ultimately broke them was that their families were far away from them at a time of the world’s most formidable medical health emergency.
They had no money to send to their families and they had no medium to reach them at the earliest. In times of such an emotional catastrophe, with no one to take care of them, and a government that seemed disinterested in their excruciation, they panicked.
They started to walk back home. Some hundreds of kilometres in the scorching sun, hungry and thirsty, mentally prepared to die along the way. The world’s largest democracy, a USD 2.8 trillion economy and one that regularly boasted of its foreign exchange reserve of USD 400 billion had let down its most needy, its most vulnerable. If ever we need to hang our heads collectively in shame, this was it.
I do not wish to repeat the several heart-breaking poignant stories that have since emerged. But when 16 migrants slept on a railway track at Jalna one night on the way to Madhya Pradesh they were looking at the stars and the heavens they would soon become part of. They were crushed to death by a goods train.
At least momentarily, India’s conscience woke up from a deep slumber. If there are 80 million migrants primarily from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh working in prosperous states, then it can be realistically estimated that there are 350-400 million Indians (an average family size of 4-5 members) who remain susceptible to economic and social vicissitudes that alters their lives. Forever.
It is true that no government in the world could have been prepared for the unfamiliar contagious virus that unleashed itself. It is also a fact that years of neglected public health infrastructure cannot transmogrify into super-efficient treatment facilities in a jiffy. But where we failed as a nation was our luminous indifference to those who needed us the most. We forget that the unorganized sector that the migrants are part of does contribute 50% of India’s GDP. Their economic activity adds up to fulfilling several urban requirements that we take for granted. Remember what happens when the air-conditioner stops working and the mechanic is not to be found? Or the plumber? Or the house-help?
George Floyd’s agonizing killing in Minneapolis, USA has brought racism into the forefront, not just in the USA but all over the world. If India fails to outrage at the death of several innocent migrants completely on account of state apathy, we will have left ourselves down. Because a great country mourns the death of every soul. But a morally depraved one only treats it as a statistic.
( Sanjay Jha is the National Spokesperson of the Congress. The views are his own).