Scenes on news channels of hordes of migrant labourers trekking thousands of kilometres back home under scorching sun – and most often than not without food and water – in many parts of the country have become fairly common by now. Social media platforms too have been splattered with sordid images of these migrant workers.
While their plight has definitely unnerved many conscious citizens of this country, a section among them has also found in this a perfect opportunity to once again train their guns on Modi Inc and berate the Centre while comfortably forgetting their own role in accentuating the humanitarian crisis.
In fact, many are shedding crocodile tears over the migrant labour crisis, which ironically cropped up (yes, ironical) only in the past few days after the Centre had already announced easing of several lockdown restrictions and allowed normal life to resume, albeit gradually, thus even raising questions about the timing of this entire crisis and whether it was engineered. For, this migrant crisis didn’t surface when Lockdown 1.0 and Lockdown 2.0, which were considered far more stringent, were in operation.
Yes, imposition of a prolonged nationwide lockdown to help contain spread of COVID-19 since March 24 certainly has had a severe debilitating effect on the country’s economy and set in motion a crisis whose full impact is perhaps still not being realised. Millions have now been left without any source of livelihood due to the lockdown, considered one of the largest of its kind in the world as it involved forcing over 1.3 billion people indoors, leaving no alternative before vast multitudes of migrants but to desperately try and reach their native places.
And accusing the Centre for the mess too is justified as Modi Inc definitely faltered in not having seen the looming crisis and for not having worked on a proper plan in advance to deal with it. A few experts have even opined that the economic stimulus announced in two tranches should have come much earlier to avoid such a man-made catastrophe, if not too little.
But what about the criminal negligence on the part of the respective host States to look after the migrant workers with basic requirements of food and shelter? Is this too much to ask for? Can the host States be absolved of this basic human responsibility? Are these migrant workers mercenaries? Then why are they being treated in the manner they have been?
Haven’t these people contributed to the host States’ economy for past so many years now? Why couldn’t the host States not throw open their numerous schools, function halls, etc, to these migrant workers? Why were they forced to relocate to their native States at all? Isn’t it a crime against humanity to discard them in the manner they have been in their time of distress? These migrant workers should have been as much a responsibility of the host as much as their native States.
The conduct of many opposition parties, which brazenly tried to reap political dividends from the humanitarian crisis, also left much to be desired. Instead of trying to help the government of the day cope with the sudden unprecedented movement of lakhs of people across the country or trying to discourage the people from venturing out by violating safety norms, all they did was spread further discontentment.
The manner in which thousands of migrant workers were amassed at Mumbai’s Bandra by spreading fake news in mid-April clearly reflected this mindset. There was also the bitter political acrimony when the country’s principal opposition party accused the Centre of charging exorbitantly from the migrant labourers returning home by trains (and offered to bear the entire travel costs) while flying in expatriates from abroad free of cost. That these allegations turned out to be false needs no iteration.
The party also conveniently forgot how States run by its own chief ministers miserably failed to contain both the huge outflow and inflow of migrant population or how they failed to request the Centre for more special trains to bring in their people or bear the State’s share of costs of train travel or how they didn’t open their borders for people in transit from neighbouring States.
A fear psychosis was also being deliberately created among the migrants so that they flee their host States and thus embarrass Modi Inc lest it garnered all the appreciations for ably managing the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the process undo whatever little the country might have achieved thus far in containing it. For instance, due to this overwhelming fear psychosis, about 60 autorickshaw drivers from Dimapur left for their home State Bihar on their three-wheelers despite appeals by fellow Naga auto drivers.
The ongoing bitter spat between Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and UP government over transportation of migrants is indicative of the kind of regressive politics being pursued by some of these opposition parties. This is of course not to suggest that the ruling dispensation has crowned itself in glory either with inept handling of the entire situation.
Actually, seeing the crisis unfolding, it won’t be wrong to surmise that majority of the States had messed it up. Most chief ministers were caught napping when there were already clear signs that something of this magnitude could erupt anytime soon after the Bandra episode in mid-April.
Of course, few States like Kerala did remarkably well in managing the crisis. There are reports that some migrants had decided not to return to their native States due to the kind of arrangements being made in Kerala for them. Even Karnataka decided to open up construction sector to halt movement of migrant workforce out of that State.
The bottom-line is that these migrant workers have been failed by the Indian State and its entire political class. It’s a tragedy that lives of people who help move the giant wheels of Indian economy should matter so little and were suddenly left in the lurch. They definitely didn’t deserve this for, upon them rests the entire edifice of a modern nation.
Now, the mass migration holds ominous portent for the country’s future. States that were once high on economic growth could now witness negative growth as the migrant workers may not return any time soon. And sans any source of livelihood in their native States, these people could also possibly fall prey to propaganda of anti-national forces like the Maoists.
Thus, unless the States come out with proactive measures to rehabilitate their migrant population, the country could witness a major socio-political unrest in the not-so-distant future. As per media reports, Assam is already working on a plan to provide job cards under MGNREGA to about 5 lakh youth who are returning from various parts of the country. Other States too need to pick up the thread and work out strategies to deal with them, and urgently.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: [email protected].