India’s migrant workers faced a long walk home amid the coronavirus lockdown. Picture: Reuters
India’s migrant workers faced a long walk home amid the coronavirus lockdown. Picture: Reuters

India's poor risk all to make the long walk home during lockdown

By Sanjay Kapoor Time of article published Apr 5, 2020

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Indians are familiar with images of mass migration of poor people carrying their humble belongings and hurriedly heading towards somewhere that can give them comfort and peace.

It not only happened during the time of partition in 1947 when Hindus and Muslims travelled in different directions in search of their respective destinies, but every time the Indian subcontinent experiences a natural calamity like drought or a cyclone.

A similar kind of exodus was played out from India’s new ghost cities that have been shuttered in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On March 26, two days after Indian prime minister Narendra Modi gave four hours for the country to prepare itself for a lockdown, millions of migrant workers living in big cities realised they no longer had a job and many of them had no place to stay.

Quite clearly, Modi, or his advisers, had not factored in their presence and visualised a middle class or rich country that could safely stay at home.

The poor and the newly unemployed realised that the only place that could feed them and give them comfort were their families in distant villages of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - regions from where most of the indentured workers travelled to South Africa and other countries during the colonial era.

The lockdown imposed severe penalties for violators, creating a major dilemma for the Modi government that earned high praise from the middle class for ferrying home Indians stranded abroad, but did not know how to deal with people occupying bus terminals and railway stations.

The first attempt, as always, was to manage the media, which was pressured not to give too much importance to these images; some TV channels agreed, while a few did not.

Similarly, a few newspapers were charitable towards the government and did not hold it to account on how badly the lockdown was conceived.

Others, though, were more critical. They also made it clear that the botch-up should be a lesson for all those poor countries that are planning a lockdown - as it not only destroys the economy and livelihoods, but more lives.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has drawn from the Indian experience and not imposed a shutdown.

Modi has not addressed a single press conference since he has been in power. He holds the media in very low esteem, allowing legions of his followers to routinely troll those who criticise him.

Not surprisingly, the blame for the mass exodus of the workers fell on the media. The government went to the Supreme Court and demanded greater control over the media during this time.

The court largely agreed with the government’s submission, allowing in some ways a restraint on democratic scrutiny of its decisions. The court did not take into cognisance that the virus had become an epidemic in China due to the absence of free media and the reluctance of petty bureaucracy to give bad news to an authoritarian leadership.

Despite these awkward attempts to rein in the media and other civil society activists, reports of the long journeys of the poor began to make headlines. Some walked for 1 000km from Delhi to reach their villages in Bihar.

The police who followed the central government’s orders to impose a curfew subjected many of them to untold brutalities. There were graphic videos of these migrants being caned or made to do squats as a punishment for stepping out.

A report in The Telegraph traced three workers who fled from Delhi to their village in Bihar.

According to them, people were fleeing the capital as if a monster were chasing them. They did not want to stop until they reached home. After reaching their village, they were quarantined - even though they were fit.

Many of the workers told the media that no one wanted to stay in Delhi or any of the big cities and preferred to be with their families when death seemed so near.

Around 48% of India’s workforce are daily wage earners - who mostly give their earnings to their families who live in villages.

The government persuaded the states to stop these migrants from travelling any further. They have been locked up in schools, camps and other places where they are quarantined waiting for the lockdown to be lifted.

The government has promised some relief, but there is little likelihood that these jobs will return in the near future.

The Modi government that got some praise from the World Health Organisation and other health experts for locking down 1.3 billion people to flatten the curve of the pandemic has not forgotten its political agenda at this time of crisis. Many of its supporters, backed by a jingoist and communal TV media, have tried to show that the virus has spread due to some Islamic preachers of Tablighi Jamat - a puritanical Islamic movement headquartered in Delhi - who thoughtlessly organised a congregation when the virus was raging in China. Many of its participants were foreigners who brought the infection from abroad. The gravamen of this narrative is that India had almost weathered the corona storm if it hadn’t been for these preachers.

India, until now, has shown low casualties and could avoid community transmission - the kind witnessed in China, the US and Europe. If that happens, Modi will take credit for his decision to lock down the country.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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