The pandemic COVID 19 has forced us to reflect whether democracies across the world could deliver basic public goods like health, education and law and order etc. The health scenario is quite clear, we knew how many beds, ventilators and doctors etc. we have per million population. These basic facts evaluating the status of health sector are quite discussed in print and television quite vividly because each fact is critical to save a live.
The lockdown has further demonstrated that the governance structures of democracy quite often legitimise use of violence against poor. Therefore, the ever-migrating cohorts of Indian citizens are now reduced to migrant labourers stuck in different cities without having even work or food supplies. It is quite astonishing how quickly media narrative changed over time. We must remember when AAP government won in the month Feb 2020, most of the “godi media” identified it as a result of freebies and criticised it. Almost a year before that in May 2019, media also questioned Congress Party for proposed NYAY scheme. At that time the slogans of “money without dignity” were shouted as part of daily news on our television. Now, the same value laden slogans do not resonate with media when millions of migrant labourers wants to go back to their native place to have dignified meals even though government promised and failed miserably to provide adequate free food and other essential supplies in most economically and socially disadvantage populations of major cities.
Let’s park the right of any citizen to having a dignified meal. Let us try to understand the reasons why migrant labourer would like to move to their native place even if promised free food several times. In my opinion the real answer lies in “trust”. When either Prime Minister or any Chief Minister of state announces to take adequate measures for direct cash transfer and food, the question of “how” and “when” created a trust deficit.
The trust deficit is just not created by the lack of resources, planning and execution by PMO office, but the home and visiting states of these migrant population have also failed them. The state governments of UP, Bihar, M.P and Orissa having large migrants’ number in the cities like Mumbai & Delhi did not collaborate with counterpart governments in other states like Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh to take care of its people. Most of them appealed to these labourers “Stay where you are” & “Stay Put”. Some of them of them listened to these appeals and waited, but a major section did not.
Some of us can argue, why raise this question now when the government is doing everything in their capacity to save and serve in this situation of crisis. The central government has already started the special trains for transporting them. My question are a) Are we seeing it or assuming it? & b) Is it helping the migrants, or creating more misery to it?
Firstly, why did the government take such a long time to prepare for transportation then why are they charging the most marginalised vulnerable section? Where does lack of communication between central ministries and state government push these migrants? We know for the fact that last month, railways kept its ticket booking counter open and falsely raised hopes of thousands of people who were hopeful that they had a chance of returning back home.
Secondly, the real beneficiaries of the assertion “that government is doing the best it could” are also the middle class. It’s our relatives and children who were transported back from different countries, it’s our proximate neighbour and friends who took the first flights and trains when they saw this coming. It’s our children who were transported back to their respective cities from Kota whether I am in Chhattisgarh or you are in Delhi.
So far we have heard and believed “if something is demanded in large number makes it indispensable in democracy”. Nothing can be more wrong in the context of migrant’s labourers in this situation. Even though the large number of people started walking from mega cities on road, the governments’ lack of empathy was quite evident. Pictures of people walking with all the goods they own heaped to their cycles and in most cases to their bodies does not alarm anyone. That perhaps explains why a person could consider this as very best option?
The respective government could afford to transport student back because of many reasons. First, there is a lower number of students as compared to migrant labourer. Second, the students could be quarantined if needed in small numbers in government aided facilities or their home having respective facilities. The third reason is shear dispensability of migrant labourer in electoral calculus of democracy. The class, voice and voting power of students’ or their parents’ is any day higher to millions of migrants who cannot afford to have next day meal in their cities without work. They are not likely to travel back to their native state when next time Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik or Yogi Adityanath will fight election. (The three CMs are named for sake of argument but all CMs are collectively responsible for their state migrant labourer equally).
The current crisis is therefore not just a resource crisis, but also a crisis of trust in governance. It is about who are treated as a citizen and who is not in the country. It is also a question whether our democracy serves the poor who need more support than a privilege person like me? If as a poor, I am stuck in city whom should I approach and how? What are the means under my disposal when it comes to emergencies like these in my own country?
A brief conversation with a migrant worker from West Bengal who is doing floor and tiling work for my house being constructed in Raipur brings these issues vividly to life.
Me: Everyone is going home; you are not planning to go home?
Bhaiya: No, I came here for work, so I will stay back.
Me: But now you do not have work, how you will survive? Do you have money?
Bhaiya: We are 27 people who have come here together, the day we are out of money and will have no work, and no possibility of work, then we will see.
Me: Then it will be more difficult, because you will lose out money, how you will travel back?
Bhaiya: Is it easier now? You think we have option?
Me: …………………after some time, Bhaiya, if people have no money why they are going home? How they will survive?
Bhaiya: Most of them will either die or will be so weak that it will take months to recover. But at least, they will be sick in their village where they are known, not reduced to migrant or number. They will have less food, but they don’t have to worry about buying water.
Me: Smiled silently….
Each word of his reminded me of my privileges. His last word reminded me environmentalist Vandana Shiva’ analogy of defining class by counting the number of running water taps in a household, the taps that are now being touted as a frontline strategy in protection against this pandemic.
Seema Sirohi is a Policy Analyst and Alumni of Azim Premji University. Her interest lies in Education, Policies and Governance.