‘Migrants Are Back But Afraid Of A Fresh Lockdown’

Mohammad Babul has returned to the labour colony in Greater Noida West a year after the lockdown was announced but the going is still tough, he tells LokMarg

We had a flourishing society before the lockdown was announced in March 2020. My extended family, which included my relatives and friends from my hometown in West Bengal, used to live here (labour colony, Gr Noida West) together and worked in close vicinity as construction labour.

The strength of this community unity saw us flourished. Life was comfortable. We never foresaw a situation that there would be a shortage of food or money as too many of us were always employed at one construction site or another at any given point of time.

But as the lockdown struck due to the coronavirus pandemic, we ran out of our livelihoods. After spending nearly a month without a job, all of us decided to return to our hometowns in West Bengal. Some went on foot for hundreds of kilometres till they hitched a ride on a truck or other transport; the luckier ones were sent home either in sanitised government vehicles or NGO-run buses.

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We lived through the uncertain times and when the virus began to weaken, with nothing much worthwhile in our hometowns, some of us decided to return to Greater Noida to look for work in the hope that things must have returned to normal.

However, a number of my extended family members, including my sister and brother-in-law decided to hold back, and waited for my feedback if the situation were favourable for them to come back. Their apprehensions were right. Since I have returned here, it’s hard to find a job as the builders and the contractors have run out of money and their projects are still in a limbo.

Earlier, during pre-CoViD times, any daily wager in Noida-Greater Noida used to earn about ₹550 every day, but now we are hardly earning ₹400 a day. It is because although a large number of labourers have returned from Bengal, Purvanchal and other areas, the construction work has not resumed in proportional stead.

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There are lesser vacancies and more seekers for work in the locality of Greater Noida West. Thousands of high-rise apartments are being constructed in this area, but due to the consecutive lockdown, work at most of the projects has been halted. Threat of another lockdown is rife, uncertainty of losing the livelihood again looms large on the daily wagers.

That is why many of my extended family are reluctant to return. This is also taking a toll of our daily life. Since there are fewer family and friends, it’s hard to support each other during hard times as flow of money and food is limited. I just hope this pandemic ends soon so that our children don’t sleep hungry.

Will Covid Crisis Create A Better World?

It is sad that when India is poised to fight back Covid-19 pandemic with the help of a vaccine it has produced in collaboration with the British, it will not be hosting Prime Minister Boris Johnson for this year’s Republic Day celebrations.

The visit was not intended by either nation as a ceremonial, goodwill-good talk event. The media in both countries had painted a bright collaborative picture despite the pandemic and the economic woes that it has accelerated and despite criticism of their respective leaderships in their respective homes and elsewhere.

To the British media, Sean O’Grady of The Independent for one, India was (and remains) an ideal British destination as an economic powerhouse that could help Britain post-Brexit to reach out globally. This has also been the trend in much of the Indian thinking, although Brexit itself is considered a disastrous move.

Much cooperation was in store, on several fronts, and this should continue, visit or no visit.

Going beyond bilateral issues, and the limited impact they would have in both South Asia and in Europe, it is worth stressing on the oodles of hope that the New Year has brought, but without enough effort to apply the correctives that made last year disastrous worldwide.

The New Year has ushered in or reinforced some supreme ironies that are not likely to go away. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, is that of the United States, the most powerful nation with the best of doctors, medicines, hospitals with the support of science and technology –and money to buy anything from anywhere – having the highest number of Corona-casualties.

And Johnson, who could have acknowledged the role of the British-found vaccine in India, had to cancel his visit because of the grim turn Corona has taken at home. The Doctor has failed to heal himself.

Many leaders across the world feel that Donald Trump might have won the US presidential polls but for the Covid-19 devastation. But is the man who threatens to “fight like hell” till his last day in office at all sorry or repentant for his deliberate and conscious neglect, and repeated misdirections in fighting the pandemic? Are other leaders across the world, too, who find scapegoats to justify their omissions and commissions on the Corona front ready to mend their ways?

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Trump will go, but Trump-ism survives. The storming of the Capitol by his supporters on his exhortations was an unprecedented, almost unthinkable, challenge to American democracy. It exposed the depths of the divisions that have coursed through the US during Trumps four years in office. This is how democracy dies.

The incident rang alarm bells worldwide for other leaders. It is gratifying that Johnson and India’s Narendra Modi joined other serving and retired heads of government in condemning the storming of the Capitol, pleading that democratic processes be allowed violence-free.

Having talked of the leaders of the ‘greatest’ and the ‘oldest’ democracies with regard to the pandemic, some observations on the performance of the ‘largest’ are essential because India is also the world’s third-highest for Corona deaths. The shock lockdown ordered on March 24 last year gave barely three hours to prepare to 1.3 billion people. Over 40 million migrant labour were displaced and walked hundreds of miles to seek work or deprived of it, to their impoverished homes.

A bulk of them were from Bihar. After a subsequent election victory in the state, Modi cited them as “endorsement of our policy” to fight Corona. Other chief ministers have also hastened to take credit, while glossing over the failures and miseries they have caused. 

A year hence, the government is to begin a study to examine the impact of this world’s largest mass movement caused by job-loss. If not avoidable, it could have at least been managed better.

India was in an economic mess long before Corona exacerbated it. But the blame continues to be placed at the door of the past government that went out of office over six years ago.

The story is similar to Brazil’s Jared Bolsonaro, the Indian Republic Day’s Chief Guest last year, and quite a few others who have used their electoral mandates to ride the rough shod on political critics and non-government bodies among others, and suppressing popular protests. Sadly, sections of bureaucracy, judiciary and media have played the ball with the politicians in power.

It may sound anti-democratic, but give them large majorities in legislatures, and they run berserk. Does the problem lie with leaders and their parties winning popular mandates with massive majority in legislatures? What tempts them to impose personal/ political agenda with potential to divide people?

The largest functioning democracy, India currently has examples of a chief minister building a 900 million palace (Telangana), another razing an entire city and battling courts that question his decisions (Andhra Pradesh) and at least three chief ministers issuing ordinances that penalize marriages among consenting adults, if they are by a Muslim man and a Hindu woman.

They take their cue from New Delhi that has enacted three federal laws on farming, virtually snatching away a subject that is with the states as per the Constitution. How can there be a single federal law in a country of India’s size with its differing weather conditions, water resources, crop patterns and marketing systems?

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With millions affected, over a hundred thousand farmers have blocked entries to the national capital for the past several weeks. Three scores have died in freezing cold. Talks are dragging on. Notably, the farmer is the only one to produce record quantities of food when India’s industrial output, the service sector and the commercial activity suffered thanks to Covid-19.

In saying all these things, one cannot be ignoring the strong support base such leaders and their governments enjoy. One is the middle class and the other, the corporate sector – both suckers for a ‘strong’ leadership and the political stability that supposedly comes with a popular mandate. All other things do not seem to matter. Modi, at least, continues to enjoy this support, and his party continues to win elections in one state after the other.

India’s middle class embraced the lockdown dutifully and enthusiastically, lighting lamps and clanging food plates. The fleeing migrant worker was a good riddance till his absence was felt. But to its credit, the middle class also organised relief. The lead was taken, not so much by governments overwhelmed by the crisis, but by the NGOs and charities.

Vaccines, both British-found and Indian, may – and must – raise hopes, although Corona is still not going to go away soon. The larger question is: Will this create a semblance of churning, among the leaders and those who place their faith in them by voting them to power, to work for a better world and may be, leave a few good examples for the future generations to emulate?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Because Hunger Doesn’t Sell

Hunger is a cliché from the past which no one wants to talk or write about, or show on screen. It is as if it does not really exist. Except in annual global reports, where the statistical index is too impersonal and distant. This is authentic alienation of the post-modern kind.

Even in the social media in India, this huge human crisis suddenly erupted when the desperate mass exodus of tens of thousands of migrant workers was out there on the highways and streets, like a scene from an old war movie, or Partition, or, simply, as the aftermath of a famine. For the mainstream media and society, hunger is hidden and invisible, like these great mass of workers, their faces, bodies and families, and their imagined homelands and infinite struggles, stoicism and suffering. It is hardly listed as one of the top stories in any daily editorial briefing, least of all in contemporary times.

Post liberalization, it  has been, in a systematic way, turned into a remote abstraction, as if it does not exist, with prime time TV shows, shopping malls, fast highways and flyovers, and swanky cars capturing our gaze. Hunger is neither a priority nor an attractive oral or textual narrative. It does not sell.

There is hardly any reporter’s notebook, camera or statistics which is choosing to capture the cracked mirror of emaciated intestines, or measuring the abysmally low calories, the mass stunting of children due to malnutrition, the wasting of bodies, and abject and rampant malnourishment or undernourishment, especially that of girls and mothers in poor households. Neither the hunger of the body nor the hunger of the soul is indeed measured by the post-modern measurements of progress and development.

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Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati was not only about exploitation and feudal oppression in an entrenched casteist society loaded in favour of the upper castes. It was also about hunger, fatigue, prolonged malnutrition, hard, bonded labour. Ray’s Pather Panchali, also a story of stark poverty and forced displacement and migration, is also about food snatched from nature, just that bit to eat, and a sweet loving home full of memories given away to its ravaged future, even as a snake enters the empty house while their bullock cart moves away into the grey horizon. This was the cinema of realism, like the early cinema in Bollywood and its soulful lyrics and songs — life on the streets, homeless and hungry, life inside slums, sanitary pipelines, on footpaths. In black and white.

A still from Do Bigha Zameen

One decade before Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, the Bengal famine across both sides of the undivided border, in 1943-44, and killed around 3 million people. If you see the pictures of the times, you might just about end up not eating for days. Indeed, there was relentless starvation, and universal injustice. However, there was also mass displacement and forced migration, huge unemployment and scarcity in both rural and urban areas, homelessness, and lack of sanitation, a slow and steady death.

So how are the vast millions of the jobless, migrant workers, the homeless, the landless labourers, daily wagers now living hand-to-mouth, their children, mothers and daughters in the unorganized sector of 93 per cent workforce in India without any trade union or fundamental rights, majority of them Dalits, poor Muslims, from extremely backward castes, and adivasis — how are they coping with the post-lockdown, pandemic reality? For all you know, hunger might kill more people than the disease, thereby becoming yet another invisible epidemic in countries like India. The slow, silent, unseen killer.

The central government, which cared little for the millions walking under a scorching sun after the lockdown, has declared that it has no real data on the migrant workers. Indeed, it says that it has no real data either on health workers, doctors and nurses who have perished as frontline Corona warriors. So when the government does not have data, how shall we document the local hunger index among the vast population of the poor and jobless?

The Global Hunger Index 2020 report released recently has ranked India at 94 among 107 countries. It was ranked 102 out of 117 countries in 2019. One year earlier, India was 103 among 119 countries. It is difficult to confirm if these statistics or rankings are based on empirical surveys. And, yet, this is widely recognized as an important indication of global hunger. China, Ukraine, Cuba, Kuwait, Brazil, Chile, Russian Federation, even Bosnia Herzegovnia, which were ravaged by war and genocide, are at the top in terms of successfully tackling hunger. Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan have done much better than India.

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The Global Hunger Index is a categorical indictment of modernity’s alleged progress. It points out that so many human beings are hungry and malnourished — 690 million people. Globally, 144 million children suffer from stunting. At least 5.3 million children died before their fifth birthdays because of malnutrition.

Almost 40 per cent of children in India are stunted, a large number of them ‘wasting’ due to malnourishment. Almost 14 per cent are undernourished, says the report. Surely, the mid-day meal schemes in schools have played a role in reducing malnourishment and hunger, or MNREGA, during the UPA regime from 2004 onwards. However, the public distribution system (PDS) has been demolished, post liberalization – and it started under Manmohan Singh and the Congress regime. Economist Utsa Patnaik’s seminal study, ‘The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays’, is a testimony to this bitter realism. Surely, the current impasse of thousands of tonnes of food-grain holed up in the FCI godowns, is as much a ‘policy failure’, as was the Bengal famine under the British.

Several states in India have moved with positive measures. Kerala delivers food kits to poor households, post pandemic. In Bengal, before and after the cyclone, the government provided food across the spectrum during the pandemic. The civil society pitched in. The successful health and social security experiment in Dharavi, Mumbai, perhaps the largest slum in the world, is a paradigm shift in terms of efficiency and optimism.

Indeed, if anything, the deadly and deathly virus, should at least teach modern societies the importance of a healthy body and human being, who can withstand this killer disease. So how will the affluent society, the huge capitalist machine of excessive consumerism, and our mighty government, react to this hunger index?

Hopefully, with empathy, compassion, and a blueprint of effective praxis to end hunger once and for all.

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.

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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.

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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.

A Humble Cookie Can Crumble The Virus

One thing India needs most amidst the persisting Covid-19 pandemic, besides the still-elusive vaccine, and the equipment and health infrastructure, which it has succeeded in producing, is the ubiquitous biscuit.

Making and marketing this humble ready-to-eat item that is also most accessible and affordable, has posed as big a challenge as fighting the pandemic itself.  Both, urban India and the rural poor have over the last three months virtually lived on it.

In initial weeks after the lockdown, one of the world’s strictest, stores in richer neighborhoods of Mumbai, Delhi, and elsewhere, ran out of it. For working-class citizens forced out of the cities for want of work, a glucose-enriched biscuit was the most easily digestible antidote to hunger as they headed home, miles away, many of them on foot.

Luckily, this sector – one of the very few – rose to the challenge. Indeed, it is on a roll. Companies have worked overtime and registered flourishing sales.

The big and small producers all experienced initial setback in April. Production was hit by abrupt lock-down when workers either could not report to work or had left for their villages. Yet, it was mainly the biscuit that the migrant labour walking back home under extremely trying conditions, found handy to carry, to feed self and the children.

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As the world witnessed this heart-rending mass movement, the worst since the 1947 Partition, there were also soothing pictures of biscuit packets being tossed on to the moving trains and buses.

To feed these millions on the move, government agencies, the NGOs, and buyers across the country rushed to get this packaged staple. Biscuit thus fulfilled the original role for which it was conceived: nutritious, easy-to-store, easy-to-carry, and long-lasting food for long journey.

For the pious, their conscience troubled by what was happening around it is also the easiest and the cheapest give-away. The smallest pack of five sells for as little as Rupees two. They prefer the little biscuit packets over perishable sweets for distribution to the poor and the children outside the shrines. Biscuit has become charity-favourite.

For the record, biscuit industry having Rs 12,000 crore annual turn-over is one of the largest food industries in India. It produces 5,000 tons daily. Biscuit is also a job-giver. The industry employs 3,50,000 directly and indirectly, over three million. Forty percent of the manufacture is with the small and medium-scale factories. Growing at 15 per cent pre-Covid-19, the industry as a whole has registered 50 percent higher production during the lockdown.

However, the situation is iffy in that the factory attendance is only around 66 percent, industry association says. This is mainly because companies are currently running on limited staff. It’s still partial production as there are not enough trucks to transport the product.

Covid-19 constraints may impact export and import too. Globally, India is the third largest producer after the US and China. It is also among the top five exporters. It imports biscuit as well to cater to the elite consumer, a growing market what with more and more people emerging with disposable incomes.

The per capita domestic consumption of 2.1 kilogram is, however, low for a simple reason. Indians get a variety of staples, affordable and available round the year. Biscuit goes with tea/coffee, not food.

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To clarify, the focus here is on the humble biscuit with wheat flour, sugar and glucose and claimed nutrients and not on the exotic variety that has nuts, butter, raisins, chocolates, colours and aromas added artificially with use of intelligent technology.

There is a vast market for biscuit in India that is growing in rural areas. Large population base which majorly comprises rural population creates a huge demand for an affordable biscuit. Unsurprisingly, non-premium biscuits dominate the market in the industry’s forecast period 2019-2025.

Premium biscuits were also projected to exhibit the fastest growth rate what with increasing awareness among consumers, widening of distribution channels coupled with advertising campaigns, high visibility and accessibility of biscuits in retail outlets. However, Covid-19 may change the producers’ priorities. So, wishing them luck, this is best left for happier times.   

Why this bonding over biscuit? Why is it so popular? To be sure, it is one of the most universally consumed foods. Across India’s complex and varied culinary landscape where food habits (remember the vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide?) often determine social relationships, biscuit is neutral. It is consumed by people of all class, caste, religion, ethnicity, and income. Wealthier Indians dip them in milky tea/coffee and poorer ones in spiced tea or just water.

Biscuit can be found at luxury hotels, in an urban ghetto as well as in the make-shift wooden kiosks along the farms of rural India. Wax paper packaging gives it long shelf-life and salty or sugary taste is welcome to those engaged in physical labour.

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Biscuit has long history in South Asia having evolved with the Muslim rule. Even today, old parts of Delhi, Hyderabad or Agra cities have the producer/hawker armed with an iron slab on coal-fire making sugary, ghee-rich ‘nankhatai’.

The art of confectioning thrived with Europeans’ arrival, be it British French, Portuguese or the Dutch colonizing different parts of India. Modern-day biscuit first became popular among Muslims when the British introduced it in Sylhet in the present-day Bangladesh. The Hindu elite took a while to emulate. What was elite food once has now been embraced as comfort food by the common man. Think of the sweeper who, having cleaned the road outside, taking the first sip of tea with biscuit.

There are social contexts galore if you use Bollywood down the decades as a yardstick. One of the most telling, perhaps, is Shubh Mangal Savadhan (2017). The young protagonist subtly conveys to the eager heroine of his erectile dysfunction (ED) problem. He dips a biscuit in tea and lets it crumble. Enamoured of him still, the girl, confesses to her best friend: “I will never be able to have biscuit and tea!”

Over three months after Prime Minister Modi’s first announcement, although the pandemic is not, India’s lockdown is beginning to ease. For workers, the village-to-city reverse journey has begun. As they travel back, not on foot this time and with hope in their hearts, biscuit is there on the trains, at railway stations and awaiting them in factory canteens.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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!

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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.

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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.

Watch – ‘No Money, No Food, No Work’

LokMarg speaks to a stream of migrant workers on their way home in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The dejected workers lament heartless employers and apathetic administrations. Yet, their resolve to reach their families remains firm as they brave the scorching sun, long distance to reach home.

‘I Sold My Phone To Buy A Rickshaw, Will Pedal To Bihar’

Having exhausted all options and resources, migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who are headed home on foot, share their ordeals

Pramod Kamat: “I lived in Rohini area of Delhi. We I heard that my 30-year-old brother died due to hunger at our village in Madhubani district during this lockdown, we decided to move. We went to the police station, seeking permission to go to our village. Police did not give us any permission. I was heavily beaten up by the police because they do not allow us to go in groups.

“I have purchased rickshaw at the cost of Rs 3,000 after selling my mobile phone. Along with my 65-year-old father and other members of my village, I have decided to pedal to the village. It is a tough journey but we will reach in three to four days. We do not have the money to purchase train tickets.”

Pramod’s father, Ganga Kamat: “I am pained for not being able to see my son for the last time. We were waiting for the lockdown to be lifted. It was extended again and again. We all became jobless. The landlord has asked us to vacate the rooms. We do not have money and food. Police spared me from the beating. However, they have severely beaten up my son and other people, who are going with us.”

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Bablu Kumar: “We had struck a deal for Rs 25,000 with a group of truck drivers to take us from here. We deposited Rs 15, 000 first. But he had cautioned us that he will only take us to as much as distance as the police will allow. At Noida border, police stopped the truck and asked us to come down. Truck drivers did not return the money.”

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Vishwanath: “I was living in Noida. The landlord has asked me to pay the rent or vacate the room. I do not have money as I became jobless after the lockdown. The company I was working with asked me not to come to work during the lockdown period.

“I get to know that the government has started a train for us, but we do not have any money to purchase the train tickets. If I get any job in my village, I will not come here. However, I doubt that I will get any work there in Bihar.”

Javed Ali: “I am a truck driver. I am going to Aligarh. Some of the migrants stuck in Yamuna Expressway are also going in the same direction. I have told them that I would drop them at Tappal. I am not charging any money from them. I am helping them on a humanitarian ground. ANI

‘Kids Were Moving With Sacks On Head. I Couldn’t Sleep’

Ajit Menon, a corporate leader, was moved by the TV footage of migrant families moving on foot post-lockdown. Menon shored up his resources to help the vulnerable workers, who he feels have built the NCR with sweat and toil

After the lockdown was announced, there was little for many of us to do at home except watch news channel for new updates. Most TV channels were showing how families of migrant workers in the National Capital Region had begun a mass exodus on foot to reach their hometowns. Some of these families lived hundreds of kilometers away but they felt reaching home was better than being stranded jobless in NCR.

The visuals of people walking with their children and womenfolk carrying sack-loads on their head were distressing. I couldn’t sleep that night; those pictures haunted me. The faces of the children, particularly, pricked my conscience.

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There was no question of sitting home and watch TV from the comfort of a lockdown. First thing the next morning, I drew up a list of my contacts from various work areas.  Over the decades of working in the corporate world, I have made friends with NGOs, social workers, social responsibility professionals and many in the government machinery. So, I began calling up these resources to assess our capabilities and limitations.

As the lockdown had been imposed, we had to find out a way out to help the labourers on the move and do it within the boundaries set by the law. It took some time to work out various logistics which included: 1) areas where most migrants had been stranded; 2) their immediate requirements; 3) procurement of the essentials required for distribution and; 4) finally the distribution and revision of the process.

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So, we identified several areas with high density of stranded migrant workers in Delhi and Greater Noida with the help of various social organisations who were already on the ground.

We then created the survival ration kits. Thus, each of the ration pack would carry 3KG of rice and wheat flour, lentils, potatoes, oil and spices. This packet would be enough for a family of four to survive for a week. We marked all the recipients to ensure that we refill their ration supply right after a week.

We expected the lockdown continue for a long haul and we were proved right when it was extended for the third time from May 4 onward. But we are fully prepared to distribute more ration till the lockdown ends. I can only request people who have enough money to donate dry ration to the needy; it’s time for the privileged to help those who built our houses, roads and everything that we see around us.

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I can rewind that the first influx of migrant labourers came to Delhi-NCR when the city went for a makeover ahead of 1982 Asian Games. Many of these workers came from Eastern UP and Bihar. The flyovers, wide roads, bridges and glass-concrete buildings that we see as pride of NCR have been built by the blood and sweat of these migrant labourers. We owe them a lot more than a few packets of weekly ration. I feel bad that I woke up late to the situation and many families left on foot to their hometowns but I am duty-bound to stop as many as I can from leaving the city now by ensure food and essentials to those whom I can.

Before I finish, I must share that a few among our team of volunteers clicked a photographs of the family which had received the packet of dry ration. When I saw the picture and the look on the face of the family, it brought both tears and joy. That moment will remain engraved on my memory. I felt as if I achieved much bigger than what money and material success can give you.

‘It Is Humiliating, But I Accept Food Donations For Kids’

Sarvesh Kumar, 29, a factory guard in Greater Noida, wasn’t paid his two-month salary due to the lockdown. He finds living on charity humiliating but has accepted it to feed his family

I never thought I would see such days in my life when I would need donated food to survive. Not long ago, I had registered myself with a private security agency in Greater Noida (Uttar Pradesh). The agency deputed me to a private factory as a guard. My wife and two young children – one is three-year old and another one-year – also settled with me. Then this virus outbreak and the sudden lockdown turned our lives upside down.

When the factory downed shutters, and I saw migrant labourers leaving for their native places, I too planned to back to my native Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh. However, I was yet to receive my salary and other dues from the contractor. Initially, my supervisor kept delaying the payments at one or the other pretext. But when I ran out of even daily ration, and asked him for my money firmly, he told me he doesn’t have the money to pay. Nor could he commute in the lockdown to provide me food items.

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When I told him about my little children going hungry, he became abusive. I know this is a crime to default on an employee’s salary, so I went to the local police chowki to file a written complaint but all in vain. The policemen hounded me out and told me not to come out and stay put wherever I was till the lockdown ended.

It was when I was returning from the police station disheartened, some apartment dwellers spotted me walking in the sun. They asked about my situation and offered some packets of biscuits and water. As I narrated my story, they even arranged some dry ration for my family.

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I never wanted to live on charity but this situation is critical. I don’t have land or farms back home. If I can find work, I am ready to labour for 24 hours to feed my children. It is humiliating when I see my children cry with hunger and I have little to offer.

Security guards of nearby industries often help me with food and milk. I don’t want it for free as it makes me feel like a beggar. Yet, I am accepting all such donations because of my children. I don’t know for how long I will survive like this. I want to work and earn money. 

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When the lockdown was imposed, I never thought such a situation would arise. I am grateful to the people who are helping me but I want to request the government to help people like me feed their children. I want this lockdown to end soon. I am worried about my children. If this continues, people like me will be forced to go out on streets in search of food.