Lockdown 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 …
Everything is under lockdown!
Economy, freedom, dissent and democratic rights of citizens…
Except two things:
Arrests of dissenters and the soaring ‘popularity’ of our prime minister.
I am not envious of Prime Minister’s popularity rising day by day. I have no particular difficulty that his approval rating is sky rocketing! According to one report on ‘approval ratings’ of world leaders in the time of coronavirus, our Prime Minister is rated far above other world leaders.
But, I am indeed depressed at these reports of rising popularity! It may be a coincidence. For three consecutive days while surfing through the news before I retired to bed, my eyes could not escape stories on the rising popularity of our prime minister. These stories - a few of them with graphs - appeared to me like sleeping pills for a person who went to bed depressed after having witnessed to the long, long, long walk of many hundreds of labourers on the roads! They were all home bound. They had one thing to say; Sarkar ne hame mar dala hai (the government has let us down / ‘murdered’ us). It was the 16th day of his departure from Ludhiana when I met a boy in 20s at Dobhi along the Grand Trunk Road!
The home returning migrant workers whom I met along the high way were tired and hungry. Their cloth torn and dirty. When they returned home a few months ago for the festival of colours they had worn colourful clothes. They were happy and joyful; full of fun and laughter. Today, it is a story of rejection, of being thrown out and of being ALONE on the ROAD!
Grand Trunk Road passes through Gaya, the southernmost district in Bihar. This road connects many cities and states from Delhi to Kolkata. This is one of the main routes for the home bound labourers. Where are you returning from?, I had asked them. They were coming from Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Chhattisgarh, Varanasi, Delhi, Mumbai, Surat … They have been walking miles and miles. Some had not eaten for four days; some who were thrown out from their rented rooms; some who were helped by the employer to purchase a bicycle to get back home. Truck drivers were Good Samaritans for a large number of them. They risked to take them some distance. Some had shared what they had cooked for themselves!
Do tuk kalege ke kartha
pachtatha path par aatha
Pet peet donon milkar hai eak,
Chal raha lakutiya tek
Do tuk kalege ke kartha
Pachtathatha path par aatha
( The sight of him/her on the road breaks my heart, his/her sight fills me with remorse. He/she is so weak he/she walks bent over; it breaks my heart and fills me with remorse)
These lines of the legendary Hindi Poet Ramdhari Singh Dinakar flashed through my mind… Yes, indeed! The chilling sights of our brothers and sisters on the highways for the past few weeks have broken the heart of this nation!
I heard a man in his 70s describing the plight of the workers to another man on the roadside: Mera Dil rota hai (My heart is broken). Look, the faces of these boys are cast down. They are dragging their steps. There is no joy in them. Desh ke batware ke samay logon ke palayan ke jo drisya mein ne deka tha, vaise drisya aaj mein fir se dekh raha hum. Yeh vahin drishaya hain; ye wahi cheharen hain (what I see today in these boys’ walking home tired, I am reminded of those days of partition of the country. It is the same sight; it is the same faces!)”. A terrible story!
The stories, often heart breaking, of the workers on their way home are only familiar to us:
· Six migrant workers walking to their homes in Bihar from Punjab were killed and five others serious injured when a speeding bus ran over them on the Delhi – Saharanpur high way…
· At least five migrant workers killed and 13 others injured when a truck in which they were travelling over turned in Madhya Pradesh’s Narsinghpur district…
· Three members of a family of daily-wage labourers, who were walking all the way home to their village in Uttar Pradesh from Delhi were killed in a tragic accident on the outskirts of Aligarh on Friday...
· As many as 16 migrant workers were run over by a goods train at Aurangabad in Maharashtra…
· At least 24 migrant labourers were killed and many injured after the truck they were travelling in collided with another in Uttar Pradesh’s Auraiya at around 3:30 am in the early hours of Saturday, 16 May, while they were travelling from Rajasthan…
There have been hundreds of reported non-coronavirus deaths due to road and rail accidents to starvation, denial of medical care, police brutality, exhaustion and suicides. There are nearly 400 reported cases of death. A majority of these deaths are of migrant workers.
News Channels have brought to us the ‘heart wrenching’ story of the child sleeping on the suitcase as the mother walks home pulling the suitcase.
· Fresh in our mind is the story of the pregnant woman walking home from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh who delivered a baby on the road. The story tells us that she walked for another 150 kilometres afterwards!
Migrant workers build our cities. The ‘competitive and investment – friendly India’ is made up of the cheap labour provided by these workers. It is for this reason that many state governments wasted no time and rushed in, taking advantage of locking out of any dissent, to amend labour laws or to altogether repeal the existing laws. These laws offered certain rights and security to the workers. This act of curtailing or taking away of the rights of workers would make us ‘more attractive to foreign investments than the scary China’.
According to the Economic Survey of India 2017 Estimates, the magnitude of inter-state migration in India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 revealed that total number of internal migrants in the country was at a staggering 139 million. According to a study report that I happened to read some time ago migrants in India contribute up to 10 percent of the national GDP.
Workers who come to cities for work are rarely part of a trade union and they work without any contract. They are the most vulnerable among those who constitute the “informal sector,” which make up 80 percent of India’s workforce. They construct malls, multiplexes, hospitals, apartment blocks, hotels and roads. They work as factory hands, delivery boys, loaders, cooks, painters, rickshaw pullers. They stand by the side of the road selling fruits and vegetables and tea and flowers”.
However, they do not belong to the city. Today, they are on the road. ROAD to their HOMES. So much do they long to the meet the eyes that understand, that love, that own them up!
The distress rural migration of workers from rural India is only an essential aspect of our development modal. In my own place in Gaya district, boys above 15 years are not seen in the villages. They have already migrated to one or the other cities to earn an income to support their family. Undeveloped land, water resources, and cultivation; no factories aligned to agriculture or animal husbandry; barren forests and dead natural water sources. There is no work! They migrate to cities for work, for income, for survival.
P Sainath, founder of People's Archive of Rural India (PARI) and Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient says in a recent interview published in First post (May 14, 2020) that the ‘urban India did not care about the migrant workers till March 21’. Rohit Kumar, who frequently writes in The Wire News portal writes in one of his recent articles published in The WIRE : “ Reactions to the Death of 16 Migrants have Exposed Our Dangerously Low Empathy Quotient”. In the article he recollected many social media comments on the migrants who were killed by a goods train to argue that we lack empathy: “Who sleeps on a railway track?” “Why couldn’t they sleep by the side of the tracks? “How could they be so stupid?”
Both Sainath and Rohit point out that we are not empathetic to the migrant workers in particular and the workers, the poor, the suffering in general. The man on the road who said ‘my heart weeps’ seeing the workers walking the long distance home was definitely empathetic. There are also many people, millions of them, who have come out with touching acts of empathy. However, we need to go beyond individual acts of empathy to EMPATHY as a central characteristic GOVERNANCE.
Empathy as a character of governance is much beyond a few acts and emotions. It should be a fundamental character of governance. Our constitution does echo Empathy as an important character of our nation and its governance. It is appropriate here to quote the Father of the Nation – Mahatma Gandhi:
“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”
This is addressed to each one of us; no doubt. However, when he said this, he would definitely had in mind our leaders whose decisions affect a large number of people. He wanted our leaders to make empathy a non-negotiable factor in all decision making. The decision maker must be not only strong, knowledgeable, etc. but also, and necessarily so, be empathetic. He or she should be compassionate and kind.
The dramatic announcement on the lockdown and almost all the decisions on the migrant workers since March 21 was totally devoid of any empathy. Probably as Sainath has rightly said our country did not know the migrant workers existed. Our Prime Minister too did not know about them either. It is a glaring example of a governance that is not empathetic. It is a governance that takes pride in being described as the one which introduced the most stringent lockdown in the world. Millions pushed into untold suffering doesn’t matter.
The ever increasing popularity and approval graph of our prime minister has a shadow graph of ever falling graph of empathy, a heart that can cry like the old man on the road. When the graph of approval rating or popularity rocks the sky, we are most likely to be in the space of authoritarianism and when the graph of empathy touches the ground, governance takes on criminal character that can inflict much suffering on others. The humanitarian crisis faced by us today, ‘paralleling the scenes of partition’, is a wakeup call. We must redraw the graphs before we go to sleep!(Published on 25th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 22)