‘Q&A: Migrant Workers Are Faceless Part Of Our Daily Lives’

Award-winning filmmaker Vinod Kapri speaks about his book that documents movement of migrant workers amid lockdowns and his interaction with Danish Siddiqui

How did the idea of your book ‘1232 km: The Long Journey Home’ come about?

I am basically a film-maker and never thought of writing a book. When the first nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020, I was expecting this kind of migration and discussed this with my journalist friends that the government was probably not aware of the problems of the daily wage labourers and this is going to be the biggest exodus. My fears came true. We saw millions of people on the road. Being a storyteller I felt I needed to document this journey.

During that time, the mainstream media, except a few, were focused on Tablighi Jamaat incident. I felt it was an injustice to these workers and thought I should be a part of one of the journey. I travelled with them for seven days on the trot, filming whatever I could. Back home, while I was editing the documentary, I realised it did not tell the complete story. It was then that I thought I should write a book because there were moments and feelings that the camera could not capture. That is how ‘1232 km: The Long Journey Homecame about.

What did you learn from this experience?

I would admit that I was not aware of the migrant labourers beyond the work they did. I knew nothing about their families and the challenges they go through staying away from home. After completing the journey with them, I realised the middle or the privileged class never really thought about these people who have been a part of their lives, run our society, build our cities, clean, cook, iron, do carpentry and plumbing work, operate lifts and guard our apartments. We don’t know anything about them their families, their villages. They are nameless and faceless. My journey completely changed that.

But for holding the mirror, you were heavily trolled on social media…

There are a few people whose job is to target, abuse or demoralise people holding the mirror. But largely, it is like a hit job for a political ideology. The trolling is very manufactured, targeted and organised syndication. Whenever we write something, post something in public domain, we are aware that a section of users will troll us, pull us down and try to play dirty, all lies. So it doesn’t really matter. You are not answerable to them. It is our duty to tell the truth and state the fact. To not speak up today means our future generation will be ashamed of us.  

When the second wave of Covid-19 started, I was on the field documenting it. I saw people dying in front of me, I was in and out of hospitals, at various cremation grounds, shamshan ghats for almost 32 days and covered it extensively. It shook me to see the suffering, the irreparable loss, relationship and emotions.

And you met Danish Siddiqui at one of those cremation spots… taking pictures that will later draw both anger and admiration.

I met Danish Siddiqui when he was taking photographs of the funeral pyres at a cremation ground in Seema Puri, at eastern border of Delhi. It was my only meeting with him and I was not aware that he is working with Reuters. We had a small conversation and I told him I was documenting the pandemic. He asked me for which platform was I working. To which I replied it is yet to be decided, and I was just shooting. I asked him what was he working for and he said he was just clicking.

His pictures did receive a lot of backlash. But imagine if that picture of Danish did not exist, how the world would come to know the ground reality. That picture created shivers in people’s mind. I agree partly that death is a solemn moment that needs privacy. But the issue of privacy is secondary when thousands are dying and the government is a mute spectator. The critics used religion to target Danish merely to hide the ground reality.

Danish lost his life in a warzone. Do you think journalists should draw a line…?

No one knows where to draw the line. We can’t predict our death. We may die due to a heart attack at home too. As a journalist, we should uncover the truth. That is the lakshman rekha we should not cross. For that if we end up losing our lives then be it; consider these as professional hazards that we have to face in the line of duty. Just the way frontline workers and doctors are losing their lives in this pandemic, they cannot choose to draw a line for their role…they have to go out and treat patients.

And holding those in power to account is your duty?

Absolutely. As a journalist and storyteller, we are considered as the fourth pillar of democracy and it is our right to question the government of the day, be it the BJP, the Congress or any other political group.

Interview by Mamta Sharma

‘Lockdowns, 1st Wave, 2nd Wave… Life Is Tough For Migrants’

Mohammad Manan, 25, a migrant worker who came to Delhi-NCR from Bihar, says he has survived so far but is worried about an impending third Covid wave

I came to Delhi- NCR nearly a decade ago for work. Supporting a family is no easy task but I was managing it fine until the pandemic struck.  Since then, things have gotten very confusing and uncertain. The recurring lockdowns, the first wave, the second wave, it is a difficult time for everyone.

After the first wave last year, we thought we had survived the virus. But then came the second wave and I had to return to my village Sonbarsha in Saharsa district (Bihar) to be with my ageing parents. Most migrant workers from the locality I live in left for their native places as they did during first lockdown. We braved the first wave, but the second wave was worse than the first, so we decided to leave.

Lockdowns have impacted everyone’s earnings, be it migrant workers like me or people who run businesses. Everyone has been worried about their job or business security. I went home in April and came back in June-end, so basically I stayed in Bihar for two months. I strained my savings to travel in Three-Tier AC in the train because I was worried about contracting the virus. After all I was going back to earn a living and couldn’t afford to fall sick as soon as I entered the city of my livelihood for so many years.

ALSO READ: No Country For Migrant Workers

When I reached Ghaziabad (NCR), unlock had begun and someone else had been hired in my place at the optical shop I worked for. I spent two weeks in agony not knowing what I would do for a living and applied at various places. A family of six is dependent on me. My wife works as a domestic help and supports the family, but in these times one needs to have enough savings. Kabhi medical help ki zaroorat ho to hamare pas hath me kuch paise hon (there should be reserve cash for medical situation).

Luckily I got my old job back. I wish there were work opportunities in my village too. Those two months I earned nothing.

Even though I have my old job back, predictions of a third wave has me worried. What will we do if it is even more dangerous than the second and the lockdown stricter and longer? So many business days that have gone waste. Every month I send some money to my parents and God forbid if anyone contracts the virus! I wish the government improves the healthcare facilities in rural areas and also figured out ways to support people who have lost their jobs or whose businesses were impacted.

Right now, we are just about managing somehow but my biggest strength is my wife’s optimism and courage. She says we need to take one day at a time, and be thankful for each day that we have survived. She says even though our position is shaky we can keep figuring out newer ways to earn. I have picked up some tailoring skills and do minor alterations etc and get paid for it.

So we believe God helps those who work hard. My workplace is around 15 minutes away from my home and I use my cycle to commute. Thank God I use a cycle, with the price of petrol shooting up continuously driving a bike is a costly affair.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

No Country For Migrant Workers

Whether nearly a thousand migrant workers perished on the road or people denied of income are driven to take their lives, New Delhi sadly remains in a state of denial. The country was left in a shock when during the monsoon session of parliament the minister of state for labour and employment Santosh Gangwar flatly denied government responsibility to compensate the families of migrant workers who died while making brave attempts to walk back home during the Covid-19 induced comprehensive lockdown that began on March 25 and lasted till May end. The official brazenness is on the pretext that the government has no data on such deaths.

The government, which has a large network to collect and process data on almost everything under the sun, has painted itself in a corner on the subject since a volunteer organisation Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) says in a report that it had found at least 972 confirmed cases of migrant workers dying on the road because of accidents or starvation till July 4 during various phases of lockdown. There were such deaths even beyond. A part of SWAN report says; “Sixteen migrant workers were run over by a cargo train while they were asleep on the railway track on their walk back home, 47 died of exhaustion on their 1,000 km trek because they had no food and water, 96 workers died in their journey aboard Shramik trains. These are just some categories of at least 972 documented non-Covid deaths during the lockdown.”

Who are the people behind SWAN and how did they conduct inquiries to lend credence to the migrant worker death report? They are a band of researchers who assiduously collected data from multiple sources and at the same time considered the data collected by other institutions. A SWAN spokesperson says: “The onus is on the government to verify our figures and then on that basis give compensation. The government may differ on the nature of deaths but it is unfair to brush aside our findings. How compensation could be denied when deaths at regular intervals were reported by the print and electronic media.” Privately, some government officials admit that SWAN mortality figures are at the best conservative. No doubt New Delhi’s impudence on the subject will continue to haunt national conscience for a long time.

ALSO READ: Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi Govt 2.0

The examples cited in SWAN report all made regular headlines in newspapers and were also major stories in all TV channels leading the states to force the centre to start Shramik trains. How could all this not be enough for the government to collect data and then provide relief to victims’ families? Failed by their own government when they needed support for survival, the country was witness to demonstration of human kindness from individuals and local groups. Sonu Sood is certainly not in the same bracket like the Khan Trio or Akshay Kumar in terms of wealth. But the way he opened his purse to help stranded workers to get back home safely has set a high benchmark for Bollywood and beyond.

There were quite a few occasions when starting from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to some of his cabinet colleagues expressed sympathy for the uncommon privation of migrant workers. Hasn’t Modi talked about the need to provide low cost accommodation to people who travel from one state to another for work on daily wage basis? Isn’t the nation aware of the cabinet decision that migrant workers being largely responsible for construction of houses under the Pradhan MantrI Awas Yojana, they should be given access to the ‘affordable rental housing complexes’ to relieve their distress? How could a government that wants to appear caring deny compensation to families of dead migrant workers whose cause of death in the first place was because of the sudden declaration of lockdown on March 24 to take effect from the next day?

Nobody gave a thought as to how the workers who would get stranded without income by the suddenness of the act would make it to their homes hundreds of miles away safely. Lockdown decision must have been preceded by many rounds of discussions at different levels in the government, including the prime minister’s office. Sadly, it didn’t occur to the powers that be that withdrawal of train and long distance bus services would leave thousands of laid off migrant daily wage earners stranded. It was no big challenge for the government to arrange the safe passage of this community which plays an important role in the economy by arranging special trains and bus services for their journey back home. A major human disaster then could have been avoided.

How many people in India undertake inter-state travel (principally from rural India to cities) for making a living to fall in the category of migrant workers? The 2017 Economic Survey that has a chapter on ‘India on the move and churning: New evidence’ found inter-state migration at 60 million by using a novel cohort-based migration metric and railway data.

WATCH: ‘No Money, No Food, No Work’

If the migrant workers within the country were denied a caring hand of the government, a large number of Indians who went to work in the Gulf countries fell victims to wage theft by employers there. Many Indians working as masons, electricians and drivers were not only peremptorily dismissed by their employers following the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic but they were denied most of their legal dues not to speak of any compensation on humanitarian ground. Our diplomatic missions in West Asia have been found wanting in taking up their cases with the host governments to the dismay of migrant workers. Once we are back to normal economic activity, New Delhi will do well to consider the suggestion of Shashi Tharoor, MP from Kerala, that an escrow fund be set up which will require of the employer to deposit wages for six months on visa approval of workers. Such a fund will prove useful for workers in future crisis situations.

Time for New Delhi to sit up and use its diplomatic levers to ensure the wellbeing of over 8 million Indians working in West Asia, the majority of them being in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This community is responsible for remitting over $50 billion back to India every year. The World Bank now makes the ominous forecast of at least a 23 per cent fall in such remittances this year. It cannot be otherwise. The International Labour Organisation said in a report in May that an estimated 6 million jobs will be lost in the Arab region and the principal victims of jobs shrinkage will be migrant workers who are mostly from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

India is not only a major supplier of labour to the Gulf, but over the years a large number of Indian professionals from doctors to engineers and from bankers to IT specialists have done well for themselves in that region. No wonder India happens to be the world’s top recipient of money transfers by expatriates in different parts of the world. Remittances to India in 2019 amounted to $83 billion exceeding foreign direct investment by $32 billion. As oil revenues have shrunk and other businesses are doing badly in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in West Asia, managements across the board are targeting foreigners first when they go for job cuts.

Kerala, which always has topped the list of Indian states in terms of locals going to the Gulf to seek fortune, is now seeing the largest number of returnees. The southern state always has the largest share of remittances to India. The challenge for the Left Front government in Kerala with already high unemployment rate will be to ensure meaningful rehabilitation of the people returning from the Gulf with little chances of their finding overseas employment anytime soon.

Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi Govt 2.0

The first anniversary of second term of the Modi Government will be characterised forever with images of poor migrant workers left struggling as if refugees walking aimlessly in a war zone, even reminiscent of pictures from the Partition. There are comparisons with Trump as self-adulation now deflated by events gives way to venting false anger against the states trying to cope with the Centre’s poor handling of the Corona Pandemic.

The unending exodus of penniless migrant workers triggered by the corona lockdown has cast a long dark shadow over the Modi government as it completed one year of its second term in office on May 30. This should have been a grandstanding of glorious achievements attained against apparent great odds with self-congratulatory speeches. It has turned into a media exposure of its shortcomings.

Though Modi and his ministers marked the occasion by flooding major newspapers with lengthy columns detailing the government’s key decisions over the past year, they could not get away from recurring reports and images of lakhs of stranded migrant workers struggling and trekking thousands of kilometres with little or no food and money to reach the safety of their homes. Their little children in tow or being carried. It is an image of a country still in the underdeveloped stratus of economies. But India is the fifth largest economy in the world!

ALSO READ: Misery And Hope In Covid-19 Days

The Modi government has reason to be perturbed by these reports as they reflect poorly on its handling of this humanitarian crisis.  It is obvious that the Centre failed to anticipate the rush of migrants when the Prime Minister declared the first nationwide lockdown on March 24 at four hours’ notice. It was a failure of foresight. Worse, the Government remained in denial about the plight of the migrants for nearly two months after the lockdown was first imposed. 

Why four-hour notice? Not even the world’s most advanced countries would have had the courage to attempt such an ambitious clear out of the streets. In India, where millions sleep in the streets and hundreds of millions live in dire poverty living from day to day on available labour, away from family and home, this was a decision of astounding daring and unexplainable rationality.

For days those who had grown to gain some confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic suddenly wondered where is the planning, when they saw pictures of poor straddling to nowhere land. Surely the Modi Sarkar must have commandeered the great network of national and public transport at no costs barred to take migrants to safer places with safe physical distancing. Nothing.

This transpired to be another notebandhi type decision without any planning, without any infrastructure in place and with little regard to the poorest. They suffered the most then and they suffered most in this apparent show of strongman Modi. But the strong are not meant to hurt the weakest.

VIDEO: ‘No Money, No Food, No Work’

With the government’s image now taking a severe beating, a defensive BJP has played the Trump card and countered charges against it by turning the spotlight on the poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic in opposition-ruled states. The saffron party is at pains to point out that it was actually the state governments that had failed to pass on the money and other benefits announced by “Modiji” to the rightful beneficiaries. So many echoes of America where Trump has blamed the states for the hundred thousand deaths. Trump can also blame China, but Modi cannot blame Pakistan this time.

At the same time, it is running a campaign to publicise the Modi government’ efforts to shore up the economy and focus on the specific relief measures initiated by it to provide succour to migrants, farmers and daily wagers.     

As part of this plan, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a series of press conferences to unveil the details of the Rs.20 lakh crore economic package which had been announced earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation. 

This was followed by a string of interviews by Sitharaman to media houses in which she explained the benefits of the stimulus package and responded to critics about its shortcomings. 

Though the government’s package could have been announced at a single press conference, Sitharaman instead chose to phase it out over five days, a PR exercise in itself.

It is obvious as anything. The Prime Minister’s first announcement about the package and the finance minister’s follow-up explanatory media briefings were essentially an exercise in “headline management”, an attempt by the government to divert attention from the heart-breaking media reports about the migrant workers.  

And yet the migrant story refused to go away. 

The Modi government’s initial assessment that the situation would soon settle down came to a naught as there has been no stopping of this exodus and no end to the misery of those forced to make their way home on their own.

Television news channels, newspapers and even international media have been replete with reports about the plight of stranded migrant workers. And how they are cycling, walking on highways, tramping through fields and hitching rides in trucks and tempos in their desperation to get home. Many dying as well from accidents, exhaustion and illness. More than hundred migrants have lost their lives in accidents while undertaking this perilous journey.  

Managing the fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the underbelly of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Over the six years it has been in power, the saffron party has finessed the art of messaging and acquired an expertise in setting the political agenda. Events have taken over now. Neither twitter nor an adulating press can hide the scars of a badly planned response to the pandemic. Ordering shutdown was much easier than planning for one.

ALSO READ: Gujarat Model Blown Away By Virus

But the corona crisis proved to be a rare occasion when the BJP and the Modi government’s strenuous efforts failed to change the narrative in its favour. Realising that the government’s image was continuing to suffer, the Modi government decided to operate Shramik special trains to transport migrant workers to their villages. 

Coming nearly two months after the first lockdown was declared, the operation of special trains is a proverbial case of too little, too late. The inept handling of the travel arrangements only added to the government’s woes. Its decision to bill the migrant workers for their fare home provided fresh ammunition to the government’s critics to mount a fresh attack against it.

As if it did not have enough on its plate, the ensuing war of words between the BJP and opposition made matters worse for the Modi government. Cooperative federalism was forgotten and politics was soon at play in the middle of the greatest threat in modern times.

Unable to cope with the rush of travellers on the special trains, Railway minister Piyush Goyal attempted to turn the tables and blame the chief ministers of opposition-ruled states for not giving their consent to receive the Shramik special trains. 

West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee was the main target here as the BJP is expanding its footprint in this Eastern state and with assembly elections due next year, the saffron party did not want to pass over this opportunity to show her in poor light. It had earlier buttonholed the Mamata Banerjee government for not following the COVID-19 guidelines and has periodically fielded West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar to needle the chief minister. 

And then there was the unedifying spectacle of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath engaging in a war of words with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra over ferrying migrants from UP to their native villages. The Congress leader wrote to the chief minister, seeking his permission to transport them in the 1,000 buses which had been especially commandeered by the party. 

The Yogi government first said no, then yes and then demanded necessary documentation of the vehicles. This back-and-forth continued for some time and finally ended with the Congress sending back the buses parked for the stranded migrants at the state borders, accusing the Yogi government of indulging in petty politicking.

There is no denying that the migrant crisis has tarred the Modi government’s image. And yet there is little doubt that it will eventually emerge unscathed from this mess thanks to a lacklustre and divided opposition. Unless the opposition comes from a coalition of state parties.

But, for the moment, the government is merely in damage control mode.