Hello there, before I begin, I’d like to share an experience I had while researching this issue. I went over many news articles and editorial pieces by reputable media outlets and credible news-reporting websites. I understand how every reporter, blogger and newspaper aims to shed light on a new, yet unexplored aspect of the issue, but what unites all these reports is the common empathy they exude towards the plight of the workers. It baffles a common man, such as myself, how many schemes the government has put in place for these workers, on paper that is. But in the face of a globe ravaging pandemic, these measures have fallen short and miserably so. What with every emotion, be it rage, empathy or helplessness, already expressed; every government policy and its shortcomings thoroughly deliberated; and most relevant avenues of information explored, the best I can do is provide a consolidated and streamlined look at the occurrence of things, in as objective a manner as possible. Let’s begin.
Lockdown 1.0 started on the 25th of March (12 am onwards). Home Minister Amit Shah, in an interview with CNN-18 News, said in response to the ensuing labor crisis, that some “lost patience and started walking”. I’ve read reports contradicting his narration of the events. The report said ‘It wasn’t the loss of patience but the fact that workers were running out of savings. And that the workers were extremely patient in their ordeal and stood by the Government’s decisions’. But, to completely agree with either of them would be to disregard the hundreds of migrant workers who started for home from Ghaziabad, mere two days after the first Lockdown was imposed, because they ran out of savings.
It was the final week of March and the infernal month of April that brought the migrant-crisis to its peak, with workers starting to move all across the nation. The government stated (In May), that there are over 4 crore inter-state migrant workers in the country. However, non-government sources estimate this number to be somewhere between 8-9 crores, along with a study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University in 2019 estimating that 29% of the population in India’s bigger cities is of daily wagers. To understand the true gravitas of the situation, the migrant/refugee population during the India-Pakistan Partition was around 15 crores. Thus, making this lockdown exodus, the second biggest forced migration after the Partition.
On May 1st, the first Shramik Special trains began operation across the country in an effort to transport stranded mothers, fathers, children; laborers all of them, back to their homes. To mull over the subject of whether it was too late, whether or not it was enough; is not what I intend to do. However, I will state these simple, unfortunate facts. Almost 100-confirmed deaths were reported in the lockdown period, with many more severely injured due to road accidents alone. Over 80 people lost their lives onboard the Shramik Special trains, between May 9th and May 28th, due to exhaustion, chronic illness and heat. Unofficial data puts the overall death of migrant workers at around 400, that’s 400 people we have lost to reasons other than COVID-19, amidst a pandemic. The disappointment is palpable.
To go over the details of the failed government schemes would be a venture that does no justice to my endeavor of highlighting solely the grievance of the migrants themselves. Similarly, putting into perspective why the 20 Lakh Crore relief fund isn’t a direct outflow of cash from the government treasury to the pockets of the needy, will not affect the dilapidated state of the unorganized migrant labor sector. These observations do make one thing clear, and that is amidst this pandemic, we initially forgot about the ones who built us our homes and offices, roads and railways, and everything and everyone that they facilitated with an opportunity to grow and thrive, abandoned them in such needful times. Chastising a government will achieve nothing “good” now, no “good” can be achieved when the lives of over 400 men, women and children have already been lost. The best we can hope, pray and contribute towards is that the worst is behind us.