The Indian state has decades of experience managing relief work during natural disasters. The Modi government considers the coronavirus epidemic a disaster.
That is why it has invoked the Disaster Management Act to give itself extraordinary powers to issue sweeping orders even in areas that normally fall under state governments.
However, in a domain that comes under the Centre even during normal times, the Modi government has abdicated responsibility.
It has left the transport of stranded migrant workers entirely to state governments.
The result is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: millions of impoverished working-class Indians are walking, cycling, dangerously hitchhiking home, sometimes over distances of more than 1,000 km, often on empty stomachs. More than 170 people have died in accidents on the way.
“Tragedy and shame,” said the front page of the Indian Express, while reporting on the latest accident that left 26 workers dead.
Here are six reasons why responsibility for the worst ever migrant crisis seen in India after the 1947 partition lies squarely with the Modi government.
1. It announced a nationwide lockdown with just four hours of notice
The first coronavirus case was detected in India on January 30. The number of cases kept rising through March. The government had enough time to prepare the country for an impending lockdown. But on March 13, officials maintained the coronavirus epidemic was “not an emergency”.
Five days later, on March 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on national television and urged Indians to observe a self-imposed “janata” or people’s curfew on March 22 to defeat the virus.
The announcement set off an exodus of migrant workers who feared the closure of work in cities would leave them vulnerable. But as they rushed to get back to their villages, the Indian Railways cancelled most trains. On March 21, the entire rail network came to a halt.
At 8 pm on March 24, the prime minister announced a three-week nationwide lockdown – starting midnight. Just four hours of notice.
2. The government did little to help stranded workers
Over the next few weeks, stranded workers found themselves running out of food and money. The Modi government issued directives to states, which in turn issued advisories to employers asking them to pay full wages and salaries to workers during the lockdown period. But the government did not account for the fact that many small businesses had limited cash reserves. The government did nothing to support small businesses during this period.
On March 26, the government announced the doubling of food rations for Indians enrolled in the public distribution system. But it completely ignored the fact that most migrant workers do not have ration cards.
Finally, fifty days into the lockdown, the government announced food support for 80 million Indians who are not part of the public distribution system. The actual disbursal of foodgrains, however, will take longer.
Meanwhile, across India, stranded workers continue to report rising levels of hunger.
3. It restarted trains but asked states to coordinate on their own
On April 29, the Modi government announced that it would allow migrant workers to travel home, without explaining why it had put them through five weeks of anguish. Not much had changed on the ground – if anything, the number of coronavirus cases had risen in the interim.
The initial order of the Centre only mentioned transport by buses, but two days later, it followed up to say it would operate special Shramik trains for workers.
However, the Indian Railways was reduced to a transport agency: it would supply a train only when both the origin state and the destination state had jointly made a request.
This essentially meant Indian states, which rarely ever spoke to each other directly, had to open multiple channels of communication. Karnataka, for instance, appointed 13 officers to coordinate with Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and the North Eastern states.
Every state had to contact every other state to finalise how many migrant workers could travel between them.
This proved to be a recipe for disaster. Many states, preferring to keep the number of returning workers limited, went slow on the process. An official in Gujarat, for instance, exasperatedly asked a reporter of Scroll.in to get West Bengal to respond to his requests.
Eventually, this degenerated into a political slugfest.
This could have been avoided. If the idea was to decentralise decision-making, the Centre could have set up an interstate council that allowed better communication among states.
Now, 53 days into the lockdown, the Modi government has finally announced the creation of a national migrant information system to “facilitate their seamless movement across states”.
Why couldn’t the Centre have done this earlier?
4. It created a process that punishes workers
The Modi government’s April 29 order said migrant workers would be allowed to travel only after they had been screened and found asymptomatic.
On the ground, this has resulted in a complex system where some states have made it mandatory for migrant workers to secure medical certificates, which they have to pay for, before they can board trains.
The process is punishing: migrant workers must first register with their home states by filling an online form, secure a medical certificate to show they are fit to travel, then report to the local police station to get a travel pass to reach the railway station.
The websites are complex and often don’t work. Many workers lack vital information, do not have smartphones. They are simply walking to railway stations, where the authorities have not even bothered to set up a help desk for them.
Even those who are able to register with their home states have no way of tracking their applications – no way to know when they might get a berth on a train to travel home.
Contrast this with the relative ease with which middle-class Indians are travelling on the special Rajdhani trains. All they need to do is buy tickets online and show up at the station where they are thermally screened as they enter.
Why couldn’t the Modi government create a similar process for working-class Indians who are also paying their way back home?
5. It extracted fares from destitute workers
The Modi government has claimed it is paying 85% of the train fare for migrant workers. This is simply not true. The Indian Railways is charging full fares on the Shramik trains, despite knowing that many migrant workers are destitute after weeks of going without work.
India has 5.6 crore interstate migrants, according to the 2011 census. The actual number is likely to be much higher: an economics professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University estimated it as 6.5 crore.
Even if all these workers chose to return, the total cost of their train fares would come to around Rs 4,200 crore, researchers working with the Stranded Workers Action Network have calculated. “To put this number in perspective, the cost of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat is reportedly Rs 3,000 crore,” they wrote in an article. “The PM-Cares as per news reports from early April had Rs 6,500 crore.”
Why couldn’t the government have borne the cost of travel for destitute, working-class migrants?
6. It simply abandoned migrants who are walking home
On Saturday, the Ministry of Railways announced that it had transported 15 lakh migrants in Shramik trains. This looks impressive but is a tiny fraction of the number of migrants wanting to travel. Even a conservative estimate of only a quarter of interstate migrants wanting to go back home would come to 1.4 crore people.
No wonder, millions of Indians are on the road.
Some are walking long distances with their children. Others have hired rickety cycles – one worker wrote an apology note after he was forced to steal one since he did not have money and needed to take his disabled child home. Others are stuffing themselves into container trucks, paying thousands of rupees for standing space.
On the way, there is no certainty over what they would encounter. In the initial weeks, the police were stopping workers and herding them into shelters, forcibly detaining them to prevent them from getting to their villages, presumably to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This only pushed migrant workers into taking more dangerous routes.
In recent weeks, as the lockdown was extended repeatedly, the police began to overlook migrants travelling on the highways, allowing many to get home after arduous journeys.
But the authorities made no efforts to reduce the pain of the journey: barring sporadic instances of policemen offering biscuits and namkeen to hungry migrants, no highway kitchens were set up to feed them on the way.
Now, even this benign neglect is set to change for the worse. The Modi government has once again instructed states to disallow migrants from walking on the highways. This has already resulted in Uttar Pradesh stopping migrants from crossing over into the state. One district has even passed orders prohibiting local residents from extending any help to them.
With the Modi government digging in its heels, refusing to fully accept the scale of human suffering underway, this man-made disaster is unlikely to be over anytime soon. Scroll.in will continue to track it closely. You can read our reports here.