In this instalment, we take a moment to consider the toddler trying to wake up her mother who had died of hunger and exhaustion at a railway station in Bihar, and a father whose four-year-old son died as he hunted for milk at the same station. There were two more deaths on a train pulling into Uttar Pradesh that same day. These are latest in an endless parade of horror stories that give us fleeting glimpses into the unimaginable suffering unleashed by a nation on its poorest citizens. Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims to understand the adversity faced by India’s migrant workers, but has done little to alleviate this crisis that will stain its history. His government has refused to spend the additional money that may have yielded some succour to the millions trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic without a roof over their heads and food on their plates.
The pandemic has left a trail of devastation all over the world, but nowhere have people been subjected to the untold misery and humiliation borne by India’s migrant workers. More than 100 have died not because of the coronavirus, but in road accidents as they walk for days or use any transport they can find to reach home. The rest of India in the early days of the lockdown was sympathetic, but had nothing but praise for Modi for managing to lock down a country of 1.2 billion people and preventing the virus-linked catastrophe the world was predicting for India. Now, as migrant deaths become routine, our intermittent pangs of sympathy have also receded.
“While the pandemic has left a trail of devastation all over the world, nowhere have people been subjected to the untold misery and humiliation borne by India’s migrant workers.”
When an opportunity to make amends via the much ballyhooed “10% of GDP” economic stimulus came around, HuffPost India reported on how the government’s fiscal spending only constituted 1% of the GDP, while the rest was rehashing of old schemes with previous budgetary allocations, and extending credit lines and guaranteeing loans that was meaningless for migrant workers and millions of small businesses that had folded during the lockdown.
Former Finance Secretary Subhash Chandra Garg told us, “The government package should have been entirely fiscal support for survival and revival. This mode of using credit and guarantees is really going nowhere. This, in fact, is compromising the credit culture in the country. It will do more harm to the financial industry and banks in the long run.” He said, “Every decision you take has consequences. If you take decisions like not assisting businesses and jobless workers, there will be a lot more pain to the economy.”
We also reported on the systemic rot inside the aggressive push towards a more “Digital India,” which led to long a month-long delay in transferring minimal cash relief to construction workers, as state governments were left scrambling to find the bank accounts details for even those who had registered with them.
“Every decision you take has consequences.”
One of the murkier sides of this humanitarian crisis has been whether migrant workers paid for the tickets to get on the special trains the Indian Railways was forced to operate after the images of them walking hundreds of kilometers went global and became an embarrassment for India on an international level. With a limited number of seats and millions waiting their turn, some migrant workers told us they ended up paying private persons acting facilitators as much as Rs 750 for their tickets, but still ended up waiting.
Additional District Magistrate Arun Gupta, the officer in charge of putting migrant workers on trains leaving from Delhi, who has not had a single day off since the coronavirus outbreak, told us that migrant workers are “desperate” to get home. “Every day, we have to tell people that your train has gone and there is no other train for the day, but they don’t move. They think some other train might come. This is also the truth. People are desperate” he said.
“Every day, we have to tell people that your train has gone and there is no other train for the day, but they don’t move.”
In interviews, workers from Odisha stuck in Gujarat told us they’re dreams are dead, and all they want is to survive the pandemic before losing everything. Even as cities gradually open for business, they want to return to their villages if only to feel a sliver of the comfort they have been deprived of for so long.
Debasis Parida, an embroider who was running out of money to buy food, told us, “I don’t know which is worse. Feeling hungry or waiting in line from six in the morning to eight in the night (for food). I can’t think about the future right now. All I want is to go home.”
Rani Prajapati, a construction worker who was running from pillar to post trying to find a train home, told us, “We are fighting to survive every day. We cannot give up. My children are depending on me.”
“We are fighting to survive every day. We cannot give up. My children are depending on me.”
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