‘A man pulling his makeshift card with his pregnant wife and son on it for 650 km to reach home’, ‘a family taking turns to pull a cart along with a bull for 300 km’, ‘a mother pulling a suitcase with her child on it’, ‘two kids crying as their feet were bleeding’, ‘a BBC reporter giving his shoes to one of the migrants’, ‘a sleeping child on a bicycle’, are some of the haunting images in the media reporting the migrant workers’ crisis.
The above images were joined by disturbing pictures and videos of hundreds of migrant workers who had to walk on highways and railway trucks for miles carrying their belonging on their heads; thousands who packed themselves in trucks and other available transporting vehicles. We also saw the unforgiving image of 17 workers killed as they were run over by a Goods train. Earlier we read of a young girl in Telengana who died of dehydration just before reaching home after a long walk.
These images should shake the conscience of the nation. But do they? Why do we have to inflict so much pain on our own citizens? Where is humanity? Why do people at the lowest strata of our society have to bear the kind of suffering for no fault of theirs? Why do they have to walk for miles in scorching heat hungry and thirsty? Is a country striving to be a five trillion economy unable to arrange transport for the very people who form its backbone? Can’t a country with one of the biggest railway networks in the world transport workers in the unorganised sector back home? Why should we allow this internal migration crisis to be bigger than Independence and post-Independence cross migration? Some observers opine it is the biggest migration crisis ever in the history of mankind. The gods will never forgive us!
But central leadership is unsympathetic and uncaring. The PM in all his ‘Addresses to the nation’ said and did nothing concrete to alleviate the suffering of the lakhs of stranded labourers. In his first economic package there was nothing for them. Even when they were allowed to travel back they were made to purchase their own tickets. The much maligned Congress party offered money for their journey expenses. States governments had to shelve out from their limited resources. In this pathetic situation my mind turned back to the scenes when ‘evacuees’ from abroad were brought back free of cost. The Prime Minister showed no desire to address the crisis head on. Powerful as he is, he could have taken concrete actions not to allow the crisis to drag on for more than two months.
In the first economic package there was nothing to ease the hardship. In the second package of Rs. 200,00,00,00,00,000 crores too there is little to benefit the most deserving. A prestigious national daily had the above figure on its front page the following day after the PM’s announcement with a subtitle, “PM, first say how much you are putting here” pointing to an empty bowl below. Later the finance minister declared that the only relief for the labourers who are pushed to their limits, is a few kgs of food grains and dal. The first thing that a caring government should have done was to go all out to mitigate their suffering. Alas! That did not, has not happened and might not happen in the future as well. The unanimous opinion by economists of direct cash transfer to the targeted beneficiaries will never happen from this incompetent government. This man-made catastrophe will continue because of the directionless and inept leadership of the powers that be.
COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an undisputed two-world reality. A world for the rich and a world for the poor! The untold suffering and pain is in the world of the poor. This is the reality in India today. The poor did not spread this virus. Those who imported SARS-CoV2 that causes COVID-19 are the rich who came back from abroad and did not quarantine themselves properly or the government did not care to quarantine them. Now slum dwellers, daily wages earners, residents of congested areas, farmers, migrants, poor villagers have to bear the brunt. The second set of reasons for the present endemics was decisions and actions for political gains like the delayed declaration of the lockdown until the BJP had gained power in Madhya Pradesh. Now we know the consequences. The third reason is, of course, the irresponsible leadership of the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in New Delhi who also brought participants from affected countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
The other day a top WHO official warned that COVID-19 might never disappear from the earth. Scientists say the spread could last from five to ten years. There may be a second or third wave. One of the ministers in the Indian government has already sounded the warning bells that we may have to live with the virus. Given the fact that there is no cure yet and vaccines are still in the first or second stage of clinical trial we may have to return to our economic, social, religious and educational life even as virus is active. A structured and subdued human existence might have to emerge while adhering to norms to keep virus at bay as much as possible.
Speaking of education, COVID-19 has also exposed a huge digital divide. During the prolonged lock down a percentage of students in towns and cities have the opportunities to learn through online classes and e-learning while the poorer students and those in rural areas are left with themselves. In the school this writer is associated with the class teacher of class X attempted to create a Whatsapp group with a view of uploading study materials. To our utter surprize, out of 39 mobile numbers provided for office record only 10 of them have Whatsapp. So only ten students might benefit from Youtube videos and recorded classes. To understand the impact of COVID-19 on the student community in North East this writer conducted a tiny survey. The results received by email say that the percentage of students who receive some sort of online classes is only about 10 % in Arunachal Pradesh, 10-20 % in Manipur, 40 % in Nagaland and 20% in Meghalaya.
Whatever way you look at it, COVID-19 has only confirmed that we live in two worlds. And the world for the poor is more devastated by the disease. However, the type of suffering the poor in India are enduring is unbearable and unacceptable. It must end.(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)