A Poor Deal: What Alternative Are We Offering to Migrant Workers?

If problems come up in enforcing the lockdown, they cannot always be framed as conflict between a noble government and the ungrateful masses.

The Jewish Torah has a quaint little story. Once, a judge  gave a death penalty to a cobbler. The gentry of the town went to the judge and pleaded for forgiveness on the grounds that there was only one cobbler in town. Consequently, the town would suffer if the cobbler were to be hung.

The judge promptly changed his decision and ordered that a roof-layer should be hung instead because the town had two of them. 

The handling of India’s migrant exodus by sealing borders, putting a ban and suspending two officers because such a large number of people gathered at the Anand Vihar ISBT smacks of single-minded expediency bordering on a complete miscarriage of justice. 

Somewhere along the line, the Central government forgot that the map is not a jurisdiction. They promulgated a country-wide curfew. A lockdown for stemming the spread of pandemic is different from curfew. The police has been at best benignly inefficient on occasion – including allowing movement of such large numbers to Anand Vihar – but mostly wooden headed and harsh.

Also read: As India’s Lockdown Enters Second Week, Three Big Questions Still Remain

Some cops in Madhya Pradesh even decided it would be a wise idea to write on the foreheads of fleeing workers, that they have violated the curfew. Unusual times create a large number of tyrants and oppressors and everyone becomes a judge. I recall Philip Mason, erstwhile British India civil servant and the author of The Men who ruled India. One of his insightful observations was, unbridled power given to a uniformed functionary without checks is the surest recipe for harsh treatment and harassment of the public. But that was a colonial time, democracy should see something better. What we see is a countrywide curfew for the first time and the police are in command.

We suffer from the elitist understanding that if migrant workers move to their native villages, they will spread infection. Perhaps they will, but what is the alternative that was offered to them? What did the establishment and elites contribute  when they suffered hunger pangs and were evicted by landlords with the full knowledge that they may suffer from starvation? No thought was given to it. Thereafter, when they were pushed out of rented accommodation, no one credible in the government got up in a press conference and tried to convey through television broadcast that landlords should not evict tenants. 

Migrant workers and their families walk towards their homes in Madhya Pradesh from Palghar, Maharashtra. Photo: PTI

It is another matter that if migrant workers and daily-wage labourers had stayed put, they would have been five-to-six-persons in one room – with little or no real social distancing. But the point is that the government order that eventually mandated non-eviction and non-payment of rent looks like the proverbial closing of the stable doors after the horses have bolted. 

What makes matters worse, of course, is that without documentation, it is difficult for the government to reach out and provide assistance to migrant labourers. Since the recently announced package does not contain much for them, the only logical way forward for them is to get back home. Now they may be quarantined. But what is state capacity and state’s willingness to use emergency power to correct the wrong or to give them accommodation quickly? Probably none.

Indian state may provide them food packets, may allow them to sleep somewhere with a roof, may provide a symbolic health check up. But it is unlikely to give them requisitioned accommodation, a support system and dignity. Instead their dignity is more likely to be stolen. Certitude and dignity are things any human being requires. Certitude has gone away because of disruption. They are trying to salvage some by going home: some food, a roof and a sympathetic ecosystem. They are without money as they keep on sending remittances home. The Indian state and its administration somehow show a lack of capacity to care and to restitute rights and dignity. But some capacity is shown by intimidating and harassing people.

Also read: A Government Without Strategy, and Also Without Humanity

The country understands the enormous challenge the government is facing. There is no loss of face if the migrants were allowed to go back home. Screening, quarantine and monitoring can be insisted upon. By doing this, not only will their suffering be alleviated but their problem and identity will be recognised and acknowledged. But insisting on their staying back is to avoid recognising and acknowledging their problem and presence.

The clampdown was justified. But if problems have come up, let them not be framed as a conflict between the noble government and the “multiplying swarm”. Let not the government imagine that they are ”God to punish” and not a product of masses’ “infirmity”, as Shakespeare said in his play Coriolonus. Will the government listen and let them go? 

Satya Mohanty is Former Secretary to Government Of India.