On Friday morning, at 5:30 am, 16 migrant workers were mowed down dead by a freight train near Aurangabad while they were resting en-route the 900-plus-km trudge from Jalna to Shahdol. The weary workers and their hopes of getting back home died before the dawn of day.
A week, the cliché goes, is a long time in politics. In India’s landscape of systemic apathy, even six weeks is not enough time for politicos and policy makers to craft a cogent policy for facilitating the migrant workers to return home.
Migrant workers, who keep the cogs of the $ 2.8 trillion economy moving, find themselves without jobs, hungering for food, bereft of hope, robbed of basic rights, and without a voice. It would seem migrant workers are people of a lesser God!
The tragedy at Aurangabad is only a bloody reminder of a problem left unresolved. Consider the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding. The estimated size of mobile migrant worker population is over 100 million – that is roughly the combined workforce of Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Since the lockdown of March 24, a majority of these workers, facing an uncertain future, unattended to by sectoral employers and the state, marched on foot to the call of their fears, or have been left stranded across urban metros in the industrialised and urbanised states.
A nation which prides itself with managing scale and complexity — enumerating a billion plus for census, managing polls with 900 million voters, enrolling a billion on Aadhaar, launching lunar missions — found itself staring at baffling indecision followed by bizarrely designed decisions. Rising incidence of protests and public anger eventually resulted in the Government of India announcing that the Indian Railways would run special services to transport workers. Execution of the plan though depended on a series of green signals.
The trains had to be requisitioned by the states. Typically, the question was who would pay the fare. Sloganeering was followed by a stampede of ‘we will pay offers’. It is unclear as to who will finally be billed — the railways or states. But believe it or not, states have asked jobless workers to fork out 15 per cent ticket price!
Critically, in a lockdown, the workers can get home only if the states sign on to receive them. Many states — Bihar and Bengal for instance — resisted and even cancelled permissions for trains from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Thousands of workers from Bihar who left the camps in Kerala to board the train are left with nowhere to go.
Fear of contagion is understandable. But a crisis is hardly the occasion to glow in puerile political optics of which state has a lower case load. Science and the Singapore experience show workers in crammed dormitories worsen contagiosity.
The very Indian ‘start walking home’ phenomenon triggered by political indifference accelerates exponential transmission along the route. The indisputable need for a plan to transport workers continues to be disputed. Confounding the confusion is generation of voodoo theories — immune to Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability, very simply arm waving studded with bazaar logic, which could not be proved nor disproved.
A member of the Niti Aayog held forth that panic movement of migrants must not be ‘encouraged’ as the economy was poised for a ‘pick up’ as if migrant labourers were a modern version of bonded labour! The Karnataka government, convinced by builders that work would come to a halt, cancelled trains. In Odisha, which has over half a million workers in other states, the High Court ruled that only those testing negative for COVID-19 should be allowed back — a ruling stayed by the Supreme Court.
In all this chaos, the Railways which can run over 250 trains a day could only operate 250 trains in six days. Unsurprisingly, violent protests followed. In Surat, workers were teargassed as they protested, demanding they be allowed to go home.
In Hyderabad, workers languishing in labour camps came out on the roads asking for arrangements to go home. In Mangalore, workers blockaded the railway station. If there is a spectre of civil unrest looming large, it is largely due to systemic and political sloth. For the babus and bureaucracy precedence is the reigning deity. However, this crisis is unprecedented and cannot be resolved by ready-made formulas, but by reconciliation of political differences through dialogue. Tragically, political empathy and mobilisation have been conspicuous by their absence.
It is no mystery that migrant workers move in clusters to employment zones. Typically, political parties reach out to linguistic and caste coalitions during elections. India and Indians are represented politically by 788 MPs and over 4,100 MLAs. It would be interesting to know how many of the MLAs and MPs from workers’ states picked up the phone to speak with counterparts in employer states for relief or on repatriation.
Political parties may do well to remember what the Thirukkural says. 'Tears shed in unbearable distress are forces that erode ruler’s riches'. Politics, at least in times of crises, must rise above mere expansion of touch screen devotion.
(The writer is author of 'Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and
Accidental India' and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)