In an interview with CNN-News 18, Home Minister Amit Shah spoke of the impatience of migrant workers. After the Centre declared a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, some people “lost patience and started walking”, he said. But the government still swooped in and helped ferry walking migrants home in buses and trains. Shah admitted that some untoward incidents did happen, but that was only for “five or six days”. With this, in a few calm words, Shah exemplified the vast government apathy to the plight of the poor during the lockdown.
Here are a few realities that Shah and the Centre persistently choose to unsee, if not cover up.
First, migrant workers did not walk because they were impatient. They moved because they were out of jobs, they did not have enough to eat and they could not pay rent. Many were daily wage workers who lived on what they earned in a day. According to a survey by the Azim Premji University, 80% of urban workers lost their jobs during the lockdown and 61% of urban households did not have the means to buy even a week’s worth of essentials.
Second, even as hunger rose, government measures to provide food and income support fell miserably short. Upon closer inspection, financial “relief packages” proved to contain little additional government spending over the existing welfare schemes. Meanwhile, as thousands starved, grain rotted in government godowns.
Third, when the government did allow Shramik trains and buses to ferry workers back home, getting a seat was a bureaucratic nightmare. Those who did manage to board trains found themselves in hellish conditions, with little food and water as delays ran into days. Between May 9 and May 27, almost 80 people on special trains died of starvation and heat sickness, according to data from the Railway Protection Force. Many chose to spend their dwindling funds to hire vehicles, instead of waiting for government transport to take them home.
Finally, migrant distress was not a matter of a few days. For five weeks, the government banned all inter-state travel and did little to help migrants who wanted to go home. Many faced police beatings as they tried to walk it. In at least one case, migrant workers were stranded at the state border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Many migrants did not leave right away. Some stayed behind, trusting the government, only to starve. Others bided their time till May. With the lockdown extended and their savings running out, they decided to leave for home. Well into May, there were migrants walking home.
Despite the extraordinary privations migrant workers have had to endure over the past two and a half months, there have been few protests. By and large, they accepted the logic of a lockdown that even epidemiologists consider “draconian” and “incoherent”. They quietly paid the price for a virus control measure that never took them into account. Contrary to Shah’s assessment, millions of migrant workers have shown remarkable patience with the government.