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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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