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Backstory: Rotis on the Railway Track, Styrene in the Air

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Scattered rotis on a stretch of railway track between Badnapur and Karmad stations near Aurangabad are mute testimony to an unspeakable tragedy. They were part of the precious food stocks of a group of migrant workers making their way home on foot from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh. Sixteen of them were mowed down by a goods train on the early morning of May 8. It was early in the morning too, on May 7, that plumes of toxic gas emerging from the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam resulted in the deaths of 12 and grievous injuries to thousands. Both developments indicate how, under the all-enveloping folds of India’s COVID-19 crisis, innumerable other catastrophes have unfolded, or wait to unfold.

The Aurangabad tragedy (‘Aurangabad: 16 Migrant Workers Killed by Goods Train, 5 Injured’, May 8) was yet more evidence of the gargantuan mishandling of the lockdown, announced with a four-hour notice, on March 25. It left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in a policy void: jobless, homeless, hungry, without transportation and patently helpless. When more definitive accounts of this period emerge, the callousness of the authorities and its brutal coercive apparatus will be writ large on the pages. The mainstream media’s failure to perform the role of critical observers and hold the government to account will also be taken note of for sure, as indeed their shabby attempts to divert public attention and create a blanket of false complacency by claiming state-mandated rituals like the beating of thalis and lighting of lamps as inspirational and healing.

Spectacles of gratitude, with defence helicopters showering rose petals on medical staff, have hardly lifted the burden from the shoulders of these embattled professionals struggling to cope with the swelling numbers of patients and a rising death toll. But blanket media coverage of this puerile exercise, strongly criticised by former naval chief L. Ramdas and Arun Prakash, also a former naval chief (‘Military Should’ve Been Asked to Help Migrants, Not Just Shower Rose Petals‘, May 8), was yet more evidence of how unquestioning loyalty to power leaves the media incapable of functioning as guardians of a democratic republic.

Today, the early optimism of the COVID-19 curve being flattened under the watch of the world’s most charismatic leader has dissipated somewhat, but where does that leave those still searching for ways to go home, even as state governments either bar their departure or their entry (‘Migrant Workers Hit Roads in Surat After Odisha Govt Cancels Three Trains’; ‘Why Bengaluru’s Migrant Construction Workers Are Marching Home’, May 8). Leaders like BJP’s greenhorn MP Tejasvi Surya, who tweet that workers need to remain where they are in order to restart their lives and “kickstart economic activity”, betray the instincts of slave-owners.

The framers of our constitution would have never have imagined that the right of every citizen to return to their homes would need to be set down in that document, but today even such a basic presumption is in jeopardy. Many responded to the Aurangabad tragedy with comments about the “foolishness” of sleeping on the tracks. This is the New Indian for whom the lockdown has only meant a period of enforced leisure and some extra snacking.

It is the same lot who will applaud the “labour reform” introduced by the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments (‘Adityanath Govt in UP to Suspend Key Labour Laws, Workers’ Rights for Three Years’, May 7). The note of unquestioning approval of this in the Times of India editorial of May 9 indicates that these so-called pragmatists are willing to see their severely underprivileged fellow citizens reduced to leading sub-human lives, in order to provide “meaningful uplift to businesses brutally set back by the lockdown”. Note how the term ‘brutal’ is used to describe the situation of business, when the real brutality is about states exempting investors from an entire section of the Factories Act, 1948, so that they are no longer required to ensure that their workers have proper ventilation, lighting, toilets, sitting facilities, first aid boxes… This is the unravelling, in one stroke, of the gains made by the working class over generations of struggle.

As BJP-ruled states fall over each other to wave the magic wand of “labour reform”, they may actually end up attracting more investment than their counterparts trying to resist such draconian measures. In the long run, this could mean a general undermining of internationally accepted labour laws across the country.  The demands of the powerful corporate lobby are insatiable. The TOI editorial, championing the lobby, argues that the liberalisation of 1991 has run out of steam and India needs further market reforms of labour, land and capital. Everything, in short, should be up for grabs under the blanket of the COVID-19 crisis.

It is in these circumstances that a disaster like the one that visited Visakhapatnam takes place. Due process was thrown to the winds in the rush to “stoke the engine” (a metaphor borrowed from the TOI editorial). As a piece in The Wire (‘Why a Plastic Plant Was Deemed ‘Essential’ During Lockdown, and Other Questions on Vizag Gas Leak’, May 7) points out, the plant was allowed to start operations since it fell in the orange zone and “apparently secured an NOC from the authorities on the basis that it was ‘essential industry’”. In response, retired bureaucrat and environmental activist, E.A.S. Sarma, rightly asks, “How could the officials think that a plastic manufacturing company is essential?” The same pressures, no doubt, were behind another gas leak, this time in Raigarh (Chhattisgarh), and a boiler blast in a thermal unit in Cuddalore (Tamil Nadu), both around the same time.

This also means that some of the starkest lessons from Bhopal have not got translated on the ground. Hazardous units continue to operate in populated areas – and we saw this in the Sterlite instance in Thoothikudi, when the whole town erupted in anger during another May two years ago. Failure of proper Environmental Impact Assessment procedures and the lack of due process before the re-commissioning of plants having undergone periods of shutdown, are other striking similarities marking Visakhapatnam and Bhopal. The Indian media as documenter of Bhopal, the world’s biggest industrial disaster – and indeed content from those harrowing days was world-class, ranging from the most searing and informed reportage to photographs that haunted the collective imagination of the country – has allowed public amnesia to engulf that story.

Anxiety to “stoke the engine” must not result in a dystopic future where birds fall dead from the skies and children are lifted lifeless from their beds by their broken parents.

Locals stage a protest against LG Polymers chemical gas leaked from the plant, RR Venkatapuram village, Visakhapatnam, May 09, 2020. Photo: PTI Photo

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Global recognition

The Wire is a small organisation with no godfathers in high places. When a powerful state like Uttar Pradesh dispatches a police team to serve an order on one of its founder editors, Siddharth Varadarajan, for a piece that had only iterated details which were already matters of public record, it signals an intent to intimidate and silence. So when the German public news outlet, Deutsche Welle, honours Varadarajan as one of its recipients of its Freedom of Speech Award, it is not just a mark of honour but one of international solidarity. It is a signal that the world is watching – and responding.

For Kashmiri journalists trying to continue with their professional responsibilities amidst the sledgehammer blows of state-imposed repression, the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography that recognised three of its photographers – Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand – came as a much needed break. It shows that you can lock up the media of an entire region but they will emerge strong and resolute (‘J&K: 3 Photographers Win Pulitzer for Coverage of Life After Dilution of Article 370‘, May 5). As a young Kashmiri, Maqbool Masjid, tweeted, “A Pulitzer, probably for the first time awarded to the Kashmiri photojournalists, is a watershed moment in the history of #Kashmir. And a global recognition of the stellar work produced by Kashmir’s journalists, especially photojournalists, who go out there everyday…”

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COVID-19 lockdown as a locking down of protest

Yes, the world was also watching – and responding – to the Government of India’s repressive actions against students and activists participating in the country-wide demonstrations against the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), as this petition signed by some of the most prominent academics based in the UK, indicates:

“We condemn the brutal crackdown on dissent and protest which has accompanied India’s Covid-19 lockdown. The Modi government has launched a witch-hunt of students and activists and is charging them under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Among those charged are Umar Khalid, former JNU student leader, and Meeran Haider and Safoora Zargar of the Jamia Coordinating Committee (JCC) linked to Jamia Millia University in Delhi. Their real ‘crime’ is that they participated in the massive, peaceful pre-lockdown protests and sit-ins against new laws and procedures that alter the secular basis of Indian citizenship, effectively excluding Muslims and violating India’s Constitution. These changes are seen by many in India, across religious and regional divisions, as the first step towards ethnic cleansing. Absurdly, those charged have been accused of instigating the February ‘riots’ in northeast Delhi, which have been widely recognised as a state-sponsored pogrom against Muslims.

“In the days after the lockdown, in the face of violence from the police, the JCC had been involved in providing relief measures to daily wage labourers who are among the millions left without food or money under India’s unplanned lockdown.

“Safoora Zargar is pregnant and therefore vulnerable to Covid-19. Shockingly, she has been incarcerated in Delhi’s overcrowded Tihar Jail.

“We support the internet campaign by students and academics across India to protest against these fabricated charges and urge the Indian government to immediately drop charges against Zargar, Haider, Shifa Ur Rehman, and Khalid.”

Dr Lotika Singha, Professor Barbara Harriss-White, Professor Katy Gardner, Professor Shirin M. Rai, Professor Shakuntala Banaji, Dr Lotika Singha, Dr Kalpana Wilson,Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Emeritus Professor Gautamkumar Appa, Professor Pritam Singh, Professor Meena Dhanda, Professor Jude Howell, Professor Naila Kabeer, Professor James Putzel, Professor Robert H. Wade, Professor James Manor, Professor Gilbert Achcar, Professor Rosie Thomas, Professor Phiroze Vasunia, Emeritus Professor Chris Roberts, Professor Valentina Vitali, Professor Bob Brecher, Professor Ben Rogaly, Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor Katharine Adeney, Professor Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, Emeritus Professor John Harriss, Professor Dev Gangjee, Professor Virinder S Kalra, Professor Neve Gordon,  Writer Amrit Wilson, Dr Owen Holland, Dr Leon Sealey-Huggins, Dr Rajesh Patel, Dr Nisha Kapoor, Dr Hugo Gorringe, Nikita Azad, Shruti Iyer, Dr Romola Sanyal, Shela Sheikh, Kaveri Qureshi, Dr Sahil K Warsi, Dr Neeraja Sankaran, Helen Pritchard, Christopher Finnigan, Dr Mukulika Banerjee, Savitri Hensman, Dr Nitasha Kaul, Ludek Stavinoha, (University of East Anglia), Sumeya Loonat, Dr Melanie Crofts, Dr Anik Nandi, Dr Alessandra Mezzadri, Shreya Sinha, Dr Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Dr Graham Smith, Dr Anandi Ramamurthy, Dr Laila Kadiwal, Dr Angus McNelly, Dr Ashvin Devasundaram, Dr Sharri Plonski, Dr Alpa Shah, Dr Bibhas Saha, Dr Thomas Cowan, Dr Daniel Rycroft, Dr Oliver Springate-Baginski, Touseef Mir, Dr Jonathan Pattenden, Dr Paul Kelemen, Dr Subir Sinha, Jens Lerche, Dr Rahul Rao, Dr Feyzi Ismail, Aditi Tara Verma, Dr Chris Moffat, Dr P Mani Das Gupta, Dr Shalini Sharma, Dr Marsha Henry, Dr Mark Betz, Dr Catherine Chiniara Charrett, Dr Kavita Ramakrishnan, Dr Sumi Madhok, Annapurna Menon, Sana Naeem, Dr Eleanor Newbigin, Dr Jamie Forth, Iqbal Singh Bhalla, Dr Shiva Sikdar, Dr Tanzil Chowdhury, Dr Deana Heath, Dr Naaz Rashid

A woman holds the tri-colour near the site of the ongoing protest against Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, February 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

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COVID-19 experiences of readers

Mail keeps coming in on the impact this pandemic is having on people.

Ritika Wadhwa on the harrowing experience of treating her COVID-19 positive mother: “I reside in West Delhi. My mother tested positive after one day of high fever on 26th April, 2020. Over the next nine days, we have realised the chaos in government hospitals: No order in the system, no regard for the ill, and, most of all, the conspicuous lack of the use of the PM CARES fund. After being tested positive, there was no response from the lab, or the government. When we called they asked us to go to a hospital. We ended up at Safdarjung Hospital. It was completely unequipped: no fan, no pillow, no bedsheet, no utensils, nothing. We were lucky to procure this through a doctor we knew there. The next day, there was no breakfast. In fact food did not arrive until 2 pm. Next, a doctor came to take blood sample for some test, and while doing so spilled the blood all over the floor and his clothes.

“Then there were issues facing us at home. They are supposed to disinfect our house and place a notice on our door to make sure no one goes out and no one comes in. None of this was done and follow up tests were endlessly postponed. Recently, there was a call asking us to go Deen Dayal Hospital, Hari Nagar, to get tested. When we asked for details, they told us to talk to the police. We were also advised not to take our phones if we didn’t want to be traced!”

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Anisha M on being alone and helpless: “I am a 27-year-old resident of Delhi, currently stuck alone in Mumbai where I was working in a media company, and living in rented accommodation. As the pandemic broke out and the nation went into lockdown with state borders sealed in March, my company started laying people off, and I found myself unemployed (with no severance or notice), alone and stranded in a city where I have no one. I am now struggling to pay a heavy sum as rent by myself. And this is aside from the amount I have to shell out for groceries, electricity and utilities — and for whatever travel will happen, if it does, for our evacuation. It has come to a point where I have to now depend on my aged parents for survival. It is quite heavy on them and its killing me to ask for their help but they too are trying their best to assist me. I would like to tell you that most landlords and brokers do not care and that it’s useless to expect a job and income guarantee within the next two or three months given the current battered state of economy.

“It’s been over a month. Every day, I feel I’m slipping further into depression. I can’t sleep, I can’t even openly talk to my parents because I don’t want my problems to push them towards a health situation they cannot afford. I just want to go back home to my parents. All I have for company, incidentally, is a cat I rescued and adopted, and it goads me to get up on many days.  Governments say they will help students and migrant labour to get back to their homes. While I laud this move, I beg you, please, consider the plight of young professionals like us. Nothing is being done for them, even while planes are being sent to pick up NRIs. Why? Are we not your people? Please start air and train services for us as well, so that we can go home. I see hundreds of people are requesting such help every day on Twitter. And yet nobody seems to care.”

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Vaajid Shaikh mailed on the condition of migrant labour in Surat: “Their financial status is very miserable, yet information has come in that the local MP and his team even collected money from 1200 labourers as expenses for the travel arrangement that the BJP state and central government will be making.”

Migrant people gather at KR Market after the government resumed special train services in Bengaluru, May 8, 2020. Photo: PTI /Shailendra Bhojak

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Zahid Amin and seven others had this to say: “We are eight people, including three women and two children, from the district of Kulgam, J&K, who are stranded in Timki Nagpur. We are facing many kinds of hardships here and would like to you to publicise the fact that we are desperate to return home. We request the J&K administration and the CM of Maharashtra to make arrangements for people like us, from different parts of the country, who are suffering a similar fate. Some students from Udhampur, Jammu, are also stuck here in Nagpur, as also 20 of our friends studying in Amravati University. Please raise this issue so that we can all go home safely. We have even contacted our MLA, Mr M.Y. Tarigami. He assured help but till date nothing has materialised.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in