The Invisible Ghosts Who Walk Will Haunt India for Years to Come

The belated 'Atma Nirbhar Bharat' relief package offers only four ill-designed palliatives for the crisis unleashed by the lockdown but none will provide any immediate relief for migrants.

During the Partition, 15 million people were uprooted from their homes. Seventy years later, India is now in the throes of its worst reverse migration. The population exodus is at least double this time. For the last two months, haunting images of millions of hungry migrants trudging hundreds of kilometres on foot, cycles, trucks and trains back to their villages will be difficult to erase from our collective memories. But the real tragedy is that for the ruling class, these invisible people might as well be ghosts.

The Supreme Court has effectively washed its hands from this humanitarian catastrophe. The prime minister too has not breathed a word. Now, after 50 days of this excruciating lockdown, comes a ‘package’ that is not only sorely inadequate but bizarrely diverts attention to inter-planetary space travel. The government seems to have completely misread the desperation, hunger and seething rage of migrants on every national highway.

The belated ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ relief package offers only four ill-designed palliatives.

Curiously, the first measure for low-cost rental accommodation will take years to fructify. Anyway, after the acute ill-treatment during the lockdown, most migrants are unlikely to “plan” to return to industrial cities at least in the near future.

Second, only 80 million migrants without ration cards will receive 5 kilos of cereal each and a packet of pulses in June and July. Nevertheless, 32% of Indians will remain excluded from the ambit of the National Food Security Act (NFSA). For the last seven years, despite population growth, ration lists have not been updated. So 500 million Indians are currently excluded from NFSA ration cards. To compensate, several states such as Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal have expanded coverage with their own funds. But with a mountain of 78 million tonnes of food stocks, the Centre’s reluctance to universalise this lifeline in the face of the worst calamity in a century, is incomprehensible.

Third, ‘One Nation One Ration’ (ONOR) is a misnomer. While portability for migrants is promised in theory, the scheme depends on Aadhaar. But after the COVID-19 pandemic, several states have discontinued biometric authentication at ration shops, to avoid the spread of infection from the glass sensor. So migrants in Kerala, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Haryana effectively cannot avail ration. Aadhar-based biometric authentication at every transaction is also an error-prone process. Further,  delivering grains to migrants from new ration shops needs sophisticated back-end supply chain management, hardly easy in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. So ONOR is essentially meaningless.

The fourth initiative is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which migrants can only avail on return to their villages. Since April 20, worksites have re-opened in several states with social distancing norms. Odisha is amongst the few to provide job cards to all newly-returned migrants at quarantine centres. But last year only 7% of rural households received the full 100 day guarantee. Ideally, all 130 million homes which currently possess job cards should be provided full wages in lieu of work, for more than 50 days of the lockdown. Instead all the Minister has offered is Rs 40,000 crore (0.2% of GDP). The employment guarantee should also be doubled to 200 days and expanded to urban areas with fixed daily wages.

Despite five tranches, none of the finance minister’s half-baked pronouncements will provide any immediate relief for migrants. The most gaping hole is the glaring of free transport. So, millions of migrants have had to sell their meagre assets to fund their return journeys. The rest are walking home. The harrowing woes of India’s working classes reduced to penury are gut-wrenching. More than 500 people have died due to the lockdown, rather than the virus. Macabre road accidents are also increasing by the day. Some borders have also been sealed and thousands languish by the roadside. The country has been torn asunder on class lines, due to the unforgivable administrative mis-management of the lockdown. The prime minister’s studied silence and the finance minister’s gloating tone betray an absolute disconnect from the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes. Even state governments have stealthily used this inopportune moment to dilute labour laws and rights.

Instead, surely the Rs 5600 crore bullet train needs to be urgently scrapped to triple Shramik trains and ply fleets of free buses. Also shouldn’t the Rs 20000 crore to be lavished to redecorate Lutyens’s Delhi in the Central Vista project be redirected for universal rations and employment?

In the last two months, migrant labourers who built the soul of India’s cities and highways have been disowned. Nevertheless, in utter desperation, millions have determinedly walked their way into history textbooks.

But, will even one minister or judge walk a mile under the scorching sun with these invisible Indians in their frayed chappals?

Swati Narayan is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Development