From the top 1 percentile of the people of this country in terms of quality of life, ironically enough, I sit down to write about the plight of the people at the bottom of the pile. I know everyone is talking about this, because it is something that needs to be said. But sadly enough, whoever says whatever about this, the discussion will be incomplete without any statement from a person actually living like that and going through all that. And yes, you guessed it, the discussion is so incomplete that a fourth grader might write a rhetorical essay about this.
As I write this down, more than 40 million people have been affected from the migration crisis. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the ones mostly affected. While the first coranavirus case was identified in India as early as January 30th, It took us close to one and a half months to take any action. On 18th March, the Janta cerfew was announced. It is just so ironic that the “Janta” cerfew, as we now realize, is the event that set of chain of misfortunes(read:mismanagement) when a large fraction of the very same “Janta” found itself on the streets, anxious, hungry and helpless. On March 24th, the lockdown was announced (which now seems like something from a different generation). For a month after that(Yes, the same time it took for us to finally complete watching our favourite Netflix show that we were supposed to a long time back) small buissnesses bumbled about with little or no cash reserves, migrant workers somehow tried surviving everyday in the chaos, and the government simply did not have answers to their problems. 5 weeks later, on April, 29th the government announced that migrant workers will be sent home via buses. But then, a couple of days later, another announcement said that the shramik trains will also be used. In the middle of May, more than 50 days after the lockdown started the national migrant information system was introduced. With countless stories of loss, tragedy and tears, we reach the present.
It is not that our society as a whole, left the helpless workers hanging. As the supreme court said in its 30 page order “Non-governmental organisations
coming forward to help the migrant workers and to fight the pandemic and extend help by providing food, water and transportation at their cost deserves all appreciation,”. The order was issued to the states and UTs to transport all the workers to their states by 24th June. Some of the NGOs and relief efforts were also backed by UNICHEF and also received praise from the center( because, let us face it, praising is the easiest polish for our conscious that lets us somehow get a good night’s sleep).
And yes, as we in India watch chaos unfold, its clingy friend politics is never far away(more often than not at the center of it). It all started, like all stages of psychological imbalance, with straight up denial. In subsequent rallies by the who’s who of the ruling party, leave migration crisis, COVID-19 as a whole was no mare than a guest appearance. Maybe what was said on the 18th of March was right. Maybe we are in the middle of a battle that resembles the Mahabharata. Its just that as we sit in our homes, like the big chariots of all the Gods, countless soldiers on foot perish. Having said that I would like to remind all of you that Mahabharata was a battle between Families, which were the rulers of a monarchy. Isn’t it terrifying that a comparison made to a battle in a monarchy setting, actually has many parallels in the world’s largest democracy? And even when the parallels to many aristocratic events in the modern history are visible and are dissected open by the plight of migrants during COVID, where does the word “superpower nation” fit in all of this?
I am sorry, I almost forgot where I would find the entire vocabulary of jingoism : The Great Indian Media. As Javed Akhtar once pointed out in a famous political interview with Yogendra Yadav, the media tries to appeal to the consumer of its sponsors. Quite obviously, the migrant workers are way below that bracket. Heck, we are talking about an entity that did not even think the farmer crisis, the crisis concerning the food we eat everyday, was not serious than out and out nationalism. Their approach, though tragic, is hardly surprising. As we all, fans of independent, unbiased and honest media saw on the famous You Tube channel, Official Peeing Human, the proportion of the debates concerning the entire bottom most strata of our society, it was easy to determine what to expect from our media.
Nevertheless, in this state we can all start by raising awareness. That was the most obvious thing anybody does, so why point out? No, I am not talking about the present issues. I am talking about the knowledge of people and organisations trying to solve those issues. Any slight effort to reach out to any local NGO will do. And no. I am not going to tell you how satisfying it is to do charity. Because this is not charity. This is what the relevant authorities should have done as a part of their responsibility and we are doing it so that someone in our future might look back at this junction of history and not complain about the missing information and survivor stories of our migrant workers. Let us not be a country where a Bollywood actor has to take up social responsibility for us to even start talking about it (sadly enough, we still need to talk more to do more).
But if we take all the privilege out of this situation, the only ones left to talk about are the people at the center of it: the workers. It takes a lot of heart and resilience to leave the place you are born in and leave, leaving your entire world behind. We do not address this as leaving their homes to come to a big city for work, living a life full of compromise, sacrifice and still be expected to exist under the shows of the rich has indeed become second nature to them, by no fault of their own. Imagine how many tears the roads and highways of India might have seen in the 3 -4 months. And the anger expressed by them to the government only gives them empty promises, speeches concerned with nothing but political power, and a scolding by the people that why did you even think of finding a fault with the status quo. To be honest, that and the crisis due to COVID in itself, are two great tragedies interlinked together. I get to write about this. They get to experience it.
The exploitation of poor workers has always been a trademark of capitalism. Democracies are also not that clean when comes to it. A country like ours, in addition to capitalism, also has the cast system to enforce the exploitation. The reason of the present state of helplessness of migrants is the only thing that is surprising, because they have always been in a peril due to one thing or the other. As the COVID acts a unifier in that it has brought the world to a grinding halt, can the government and our society completely solve the worker’s problems? Like the COVID vaccine, student exams and other regular events, the answer to that question is the same: we dont know.