Newspapers and News channels reported on Tuesday, April 21, a heart wrenching story of a 12 year old girl, Jamalo Madkam, who walked for over three days, covering nearly 100 km and died barely 11 km short of her home in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. She was one among the 13 daily wage workers who left Telangana to their home state, Chhattisgarh. According to a report in Indian Express, the 12-year-old girl died on April 18 due to electrolyte imbalance and exhaustion.
Many among Chhattisgarh’s tribal population go every year to farms in Telangana to earn money by picking chillies. Jamalo Madkam was one among the tribals who had gone to Telangana for earning some money through daily wage labour. When the Prime Minister of India declared the extension of all India Lockdown up to May 3, she along with 12 labourers started walking to reach their village.
The tragic death of Jamalo Madkam is only one among the many migrant workers who had the same fate. According to a report in ‘The Wire’ on 30th March, 22 migrant workers and their kin died while trying to return to their home towns or villages. There could be many more unreported cases of deaths.
Many of us might have read the valiant stories of the ordinary people like Mahesh Jena, 20, who cycled 1,700 km from Maharashtra to his home in Odisha, Ranveer Singh who walked 200 km from Delhi only to collapse and die on the highway and 24-year-old Kallibai Kevat, heavily pregnant, who took the courage to walk 500 km from Mathura in UP to Panna in MP.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced all India lockdown on 24th March nobody thought of a huge exodus of migrant labourers from different cities of India towards their villages. In the absence of any public transport, most of them walked hundreds of miles. Media had published the pathetic condition of lakhs of migrant workers who walked carrying children on their shoulders and their meagre belongings on their heads. Government of India had told the Supreme Court that 5 to 6 lakh people migrated on foot during the lockdown.
The government’s approach towards the migrant labourers has not reflected sensitivity and humanness. The State governments were told to retain them where they were, even though they were bent upon returning to their homes. Although promise was made to provide them food, hygienic accommodation and meet their other basic needs, the reality is far away from the promise. The restlessness among the migrant labourers was seen in Surat and Bandra in Bombay, where thousands of them took to the streets, voicing their demand to go home. The police used heavy hands and sent them back to their camps. At many places the migrant labourers had to face the ire of the police.
On the other hand the governments have shown extraordinary generosity towards the rich and middle class. The Madhya Pradesh Government sent 150 buses to ferry 2717 students who were stranded at the coaching centres in Kota, Rajasthan. Yogi Adityanad government had sent 100 buses to Kota to bring back the students from UP. Buses were provided for pilgrims from Varanasi to Telangana and for Gujarat tourists from Uttarakhand back to Gujarat.
The issue of migrant labourers was highlighted in the media for two or three days. All on a sudden this issue was overshadowed by the news of spreading of coronavirus by the Muslims who participated in the gathering of Tablighi Jamaat sect in Nizammudin area of Delhi. Some toxic TV channels presented the event as Muslims solely responsible for the spread of coronavirus infections all over India. Fake videos and WhatsApp messages were circulated on social media platforms depicting Muslims flouting social distancing and allegedly spitting at people to “infect” them. The focus of the Godi media shifted from fighting COVID 19 to hate news against the Muslims, accusing the whole community deliberately spreading the coronavirus. It appeared to be “violent majoritarian vigilantism, operating under the cover of an anti-corona campaign” as described by Sagarika Ghose in her article, “Covid-19 can be cured, but who will cure the communal virus?” in the Times of India on 9th April.
Insensitivity to migrant workers, favours to the rich and the middle class students and the spreading of communal virus more powerfully than the coronavirus have exposed some fault lines in growth story of India. It is a fact that India has made considerable progress in certain areas like self sufficiency in food production, rise in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), reduction in the percentage of people living below poverty line and increase in literacy rate etc. since independence. According to a UN index, during 2006-16, India lifted 271 million out of poverty.
At the same time grey and dark areas of India’s development story are also brought to light by the reports of international agencies. Human Development Report (HDR) 2019, ranked India at the 129th position on 2019's Human Development Index (HDI) out of a total 189 countries. As per the HDR India remains the home of 364 million poor people (28 percent) out of a total population of 1.3 billion. India was ranked at 102nd place of 117 economies in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2019. According to the report, India’s child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8%. The country’s child stunting rate, 37.9% is also rated as very high from the point of view of public health significance.
On the other hand the number of billionaires in India is constantly rising. India added 34 new billionaires in 2019, taking the total number up to 138, according to Hurun Global Rich List 2020 published in February 2020. Mukesh Ambani with a net worth of 67 billion dollars tops the list. The number of billionaires in India doubled between 2013 and 2018, according to Knight Frank Wealth Report 2019.
Although the economic liberalization process adopted by India since 1991 has contributed to the overall economic growth, the benefits are garnered mainly by the top and middle sections of the society. The expectation of the benefits percolating to the lowest strata of the society has not happened. Many studies have shown that the comparatively affluent sections of the urban population have been the main beneficiaries of rapid economic growth in India during the recent years. The situation created by Kovid 19 has exposed the abject poverty of large section of Indian society. As many as 400 million Indians, including migrant workers and daily wage earners, are at risk of being pushed deeper into poverty because of the covid-19 pandemic as per the statement International Labour Organization (ILO) on 8th April 2019.
The analysis of Indian situation by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their book, “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions”, has brought to light the reason for the increasing divide between the rich and the poor in India. According to them, all countries in the world have inequalities of various kinds. India however has a “unique cocktail of lethal divisions and disparities”. It is the mutual reinforcement of severe inequalities like caste, gender and class that creates “an extremely oppressive social system where those at the bottom of these multiple layers of disadvantage live in conditions of extreme disempowerment”. While summing up the section on inequalities the authors have succinctly put the gist of their analysis in the following words. “It can be seen that the same people, often enough, are poor in income and wealth, suffer from illiteracy and bad schooling, work hard for little remuneration, have little influence on the administration of the country, lack social and economic opportunities that would allow them to move forward, and are treated with brutal callousness by class-conscious police.”
Who could be the 400 million Indians about whom the ILO speaks? Large majority of the migrant workers and daily wage earners belong to Tribals, Dalits, Muslims and some backward classes. They are socially discriminated, economically weak and educationally illiterate or semi-literate or school dropouts. These are the people who are the victims of multiple inequalities about whom Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen have written in their book, An Uncertain Glory. They are mostly from the rural areas and in the urban slums.
Increasing number of suicides among the farmers during the last one decade has brought to light the crisis in agriculture, another fault line in the development saga of India. The governments could not do much to alleviate the sufferings of the farmers though an integrated approach. Migration of the village people to the cities is an overflow of the crisis in agricultural sector.
The lockdown has also exposed the insensitivity of the middle class, the main beneficiaries of the liberalized economy, towards the poor. Guy Sorman in his book, ‘The Genius of India’, has described the behaviour of the middle class in India very succinctly. “What really despairs the progressives, both in India and abroad, is that it is not so much the illiterate masses as the new educated middle class which supports Hindutva; they are the ones who identify with this hi-tech religious movement, morally conservative and economically progressive. Their members come from among the semi-privileged intermediate castes: salaried employees, executives, traders, small entrepreneurs, and smugglers.”
The supporters of Hindutva appear to be behind spreading the communal virus during the spread of coronavirus. They have the means to meet their needs while confined to their comfortable homes. They make use of the social media to spread the virus of hatred and prejudice against a particular community. Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Thursday, 23rd April, accused the BJP of spreading the virus of communal prejudice and hatred in the country, asserting that "grave damage" is being done to social harmony. She was addressing a meeting of the Congress Working Committee through video conference.
What could be the development model that India needs in the post Covid 19 period? Some tips for a development model can be seen in an article written by Ramchandra Guha, “Give us Kerala Model over Gujarat Model any Day” in NDTV news on 22nd April. The Kerala model of fighting Coronavirus has got accolades not only from all over India but also from many parts of the world. The author has summarized at the end of the article in the four pillars of Kerala model and Gujarat model of development. “The success of the State in the past and in the present has rested on science, transparency, decentralization, and social equality. These are, as it were, the four pillars of the Kerala Model. On the other hand, the four pillars of the Gujarat Model are superstition, secrecy, centralization, and communal bigotry. Give us the first over the second, any day”.
The state of Kerala has been focusing on education, public health and strengthening local self governments through devolution of power since 1970s. Robust civil society organizations and people’s organizations like Kudumbsree are other strengths of Kerala. Communal tensions and caste discriminations are less in Kerala in comparison with other states. These have proved to be great asset in tackling the pandemic Covid 19. What the Kerala model needs urgently today is promotion of entrepreneurship and creating an environment in which environmental friendly micro, small and medium industries can flourish. Such a model will be closer to the model envisioned in the preamble of Indian constitution and dreamt by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation.
The development model that is being pursued by the BJP government at the Centre is Gujarat model with its disastrous consequences as described by Ramachandra Guha in his article. It is to be replaced by a model envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi, a model that focuses on the empowerment of people through quality education, robust public health system, development of agro-based industries in rural areas, drastically slowing down the unplanned and disastrous growth of cities by starting environment friendly micro and small industries in the rural areas and Providing Urban Facilities in the Rural Areas (PURA), a concept proposed by A P J Abdul Kalam, the late president of India. Above all the model urgently requires restoring the millennial heritage of India, the universal family spirit, respect for pluralism and communal harmony which the BJP-RSS combine has been destroying ever since it came to power at the Centre in 2014.(Published on 27th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 18)