Did Prime Minister Narendra Modi see the pictures of the long lines of men, with bags and bundles, making their way along the edges of national highways out of New Delhi? Did he hear the young man, sobbing because there was no way home, and no way to escape police batons who asked, “How will we go, we can’t go by flight, can we?”
If Modi did, there was no sign that he considered their circumstance to be of any consequence. Delivering his fire and brimstone speech announcing the 21-day nation-wide lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus, Modi set out to justifiably terrify the people, who having blown conches, clapped their hands and beaten plates at his command just a couple of days ago, believed they had done their bit to fight the virus. If you don’t stay home, he said, we will die.
But the sight of hundreds of men walking along highways should trouble us, even if it does not trouble him. And not because they are out there, defying social distancing measures. These are working men. They are trying to get home from a hostile city that has downed shutters on them, taken away their work or jobs and their incomes, and provided them no comfort. They are walking to the villages and kasbas they come from because the government of India cancelled all trains, state governments declared curfews and closed their borders, stopping buses, trucks or any other form of transport public or private – in order to stop them going home because there is a possibility that they may carry the contagion further.
The government began to prepare for the coronavirus generated crisis rather late. The result was a series of ill-thought out, poorly timed reactive measures that have hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Factories and establishments were shut down, and construction ground to a halt. Even as people were trying to deal with this new reality, the Prime Minister addressed the nation calling for social distancing, to contain the deadly disease and a “janata” or people’s curfew on Sunday, March 22.
In the 24 hours after the schedule of the speech was announced, cities were filled with uncertainty and rumours, not least because of the memory of that speech in 2016 announcing demonetisation. The strongest rumour across all classes of people was that Modi was going to announce a countrywide curfew or a lockdown. They were not wrong.
People bought whatever they could afford. The well-heeled cleared store shelves and the inventories of online grocery retailers, of food, hand sanitisers and basic medicines. Migrant workers decided to go home. The prime minister had asked people to stay home, and home was where they were going. They thronged railway stations and clambered on any train going towards home. Videos of masses of men leaving on impossibly packed trains from Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu went viral. The ones on the trains were the lucky ones. Those who did not make it on to those trains are now stuck in a limbo – at shut down bus and railway stations far away from home, with no jobs, no money and no roof over their heads and far from their families.
Going home is also what the 15 lakh Indian’s abroad who flew back were doing. The big difference was that the government bent over backwards to help the flyers. There were special flights, exceptions made to allow flights to land despite announced closures, and even special dispensation visas issued. These were people bringing more of the contagion into India. But they were Indian citizens, or families of Indian citizens, and they had a right to be home with their own.
Migrant workers in India always head home when they have no prospect of work. This has been a pattern during any disruption, natural or man-made. In Narendra Modi’s tenure, migrant workers have left their place of work in droves more than once, andmost memorably when he announced the demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 notes. Establishments closed, construction ground to a halt, vendors and stall holders found that their customers did not have the cash to keep them in business. So, they headed back to their towns and villages, in the poorer states of the north and east.
This time it is not just the loss of work and pay, but also a fear of being sick and dying among strangers, that is driving migrant workers home.
It was clear from the prime minister’s first fatuous speech to the nation on the coronavirus crisis that these men and their families did not figure in his world. He spent 30 minutes talking about the need to practice “social distancing”, without addressing the problem of overcrowded housing, and livelihoods dependent on close contact. He made a half suggestion that people might continue to pay their casual and contractual employees even if they could not come to work, but offered nothing, not even hollow assurances, of government support to the workers should this not happen.
When he addressed the nation for the second time, on Tuesday, it was in the same vein. This time he said, “Stay where you are.” For thousands of people, this means staying at bus stations, waiting for buses that will not come,or at empty railway stations, or on streets and highways. They will have to live on the generosity of civil society organisations, who Modi said in passing were taking care of the poor. The government, he appeared to say, had no responsibility to anyone who could not afford an aeroplane ticket.
The message from Modi’s government was loud and clear. The country’s poor had been cut adrift.