During the Vietnam war, the picture of a screaming naked girl, fleeing an area where napalm bombs were dropped, brought world’s attention to the horrors of war. A few decades down the line, the photo of a vulture waiting for a starving child to die, in the midst of the worst Sudanese famine in 1990s, made even the stonyhearted world leaders to focus on famine. In the middle of the last decade, the image of three-year old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose body was washed ashore the Mediterranean Sea, made many European countries to take a relook at the fate of migrants. Now, in the midst of Covid menace, similar scenes are emerging in India. In a heart-wrenching twist to the ongoing tragedy of migrants, the video of a toddler frantically trying to wake up his dead mother at a railway station has gone viral. The famished family was travelling in a special train for migrant labourers from Ahmedabad to Bihar. On the same day, yet another picture of a distressed migrant father holding the body of his diseased child on the platform of another railway station in the same State came to public view. In all, close to a dozen migrants travelling on trains have breathed their last due to lack water, food, and other basic facilities. As public anger against the government and the railways is going viral, they are trying to wriggle out claiming that the deaths were due to some or other illness of the victims rather than due to the apathy of the railways or lack of facilities on trains.
In many cases involving migrant workers, it is not the virus that is taking the life of most of them, but the callousness of governments which have turned deaf and dumb towards their plight. The two pictures described above expose only the tip of the iceberg of a bigger tragedy of migrants left to fend for themselves after the government imposed a pan-India lockdown. Left unemployed, and with no means to live, their very survival at the place of their work became a remote possibility. For those who earn just enough to make ends meet on a daily basis, even a few days of unemployment is death-like. The biggest folly that happened on the night of March 24 when the Prime Minister announced nation-wide lockdown was that none gave even a thought to the survival of these hapless millions. Instead of finding a way to send them back to the ‘safety’ of their homeland, they were forced to retreat to their ‘pigeon holes-like’ living places with no means for even a square meal a day. Worst of all, there was no way they could keep the social distancing widely propagated by the government. The government failed to understand the gravity of the situation even after thousands of people came out demanding that they be sent back home.
The Rs. 20-lakh-crore package announced by the Prime Minister, the details of which were given out by the Union Finance Minister for five consecutive days, came as another nail in the coffin of suffering migrants stripped of jobs and other means of livelihood. There was hardly anything earmarked for them. This showed lack of empathy for the suffering workers. Left with no choice, and little help from the authorities, migrants set out for their homes, hundreds of kilometers away, carrying whatever left with them. They walked under the sun; and under the moon; they took detours through villages and jungles to escape the ‘police raj’; they rested on railway tracks; they lay down whenever fatigue overtook them and wherever they found some space; some found place in overcrowded trucks and pick-up vehicles; some took to cycles and autos; some were crushed under the wheels, while some on railway tracks.
Though belatedly, it dawned upon the government that if something was not done to retrieve the situation, things would go out of hand. Then came Shramik trains, specially meant to transport migrant labourers. But, with little coordination between the Centre and the States and between States, all hell broke loose. With the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, the migrants’ train journeys turned out to be nothing less than nightmares. With mercury shooting up, these unusually long journeys, sometimes running up to three to four days, became a passage to hell. Adding insult to injury, the decision to charge ticket fare from labourers touched the nadir of insensitivity, especially after the government had arranged free air travel for stranded people from foreign countries in the early days of Covid crisis.
The migrants’ crisis could have been resolved to some extend if the Supreme Court had intervened early. Unfortunately, it had refused to entertain a public interest litigation seeking to ensure transport, food and shelter for migrant workers. However, though belatedly, the apex court has suo motu taken congnizance of the matter. It may be a coincidence that a day before the court took up the matter, 20 senior advocates of the Supreme Court had written to the Chief Justice stating that the unwillingness of the court to hold the government to account will severely erode its constitutional role and status as the guardian of the fundamental rights of the people.
The apex court has now retrieved the situation to some extend by asking the government not to charge any fare for train or bus journey from migrant workers. Among the other guidelines are: During the train journey, the originating State and the railways have to provide meals and water; the stranded migrant workers should be provided food by the State concerned and it should be published; those found walking on the roads should immediately be taken to shelters and provided food and other facilities. If the wheels of justice do not turn faster, and the governments do not show more promptness in dealing with the unusual crisis, we might be left to witness a more bitter story.
Tailpiece: A farmer in Delhi brought air tickets for 10 of his stranded farm workers which enabled them to make their ‘dream journey’ to Patna, and reach their homes in remote Bihar villages. Amid the encircling darkness of inhumanity, this farmer’s action comes out as a silver lining and sends out the right message to the government.
(Published on 1th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 23)