So, the natives are returning home. Going home to one’s near and dear ones is an exciting feeling and a joyous occasion. I should know this as a ‘migrant’ from the age of twenty for studies and postings by the government of India in almost a dozen Indian states. Living in unfamiliar environs often looked at by the local population as an ‘outsider’ is not exactly a pleasant feeling. In Bangalore I was a ‘Malayali’; in Goa an ‘Indian’ with a not so pleasing prefix; a ‘Lungiwala’ in Bombay or ‘Amchi Mumbai’, a ‘Vai’ or stranger in Mizoram; a ‘Madirasi’ in our national capital, a city of migrants in the true sense, and so on. Doesn’t an outsider, an interloper, face a certain degree of social distancing? May be a government designation and position often give acceptability.
Now, think of the millions of migrants seeking a livelihood living in almost subhuman conditions in overcrowded slum clusters like Yamuna pushta, Kusumpur Pahari, Jahangir Puri or the ‘Kathputli colony in Delhi or in other cities. With my friend Suneel Vatsyayan I have been to at least ten slum clusters in Delhi to train children of the migrant workers. The poverty, deprivation, domestic violence, eve teasing and appalling living conditions in these slums have to be seen to understand the attitudes and lack of self – esteem of these migrant workers. They do all the physical labour and menial jobs for us who live in more comfortable dwelling places. The worst affected by the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and the two - month long lockdown were our migrant workers not only in Delhi but in all our cities. Without their daily wages and inability to pay rent they had no choice but to return to their native villages in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and other states which they had left in search of work, wages and dreams. I am trying to give a glimpse of their horrendous return journey to their homes.
Some were in a tearing hurry to leave the cities where hunger and deprivation stared at them, walking with the loads of whatever earthly belongings they had; there were pregnant women[ few of them delivered on the way], infants and children in tow. They somehow wanted to escape the miseries they were facing, following the lockdown without food or shelter. If what we see in the media is for real, tens of thousands of them are still on the road. Some crammed into tempos and trucks in the summer heat paying the drivers exorbitant sums. In television interviews they said that the ticket charges were much beyond their means if they had waited till the train journey was opened by the government. Many of them, therefore, continued to walk back home, hundreds or even over a thousand kilometres or used their cycles, cycle rickshaws or auto rickshaws to travel to their villages. In the process some fell by the wayside, exhausted and some even died. Some choose railway tracks to walk on the tracks being crushed by speeding trains [ over a dozen perished like that in Aurangabad in Maharashtra]. Indian roads turned death traps for a lot of them. We have been seeing media reports of how speeding vehicles had killed them. What happened to over two dozen migrant workers near Lucknow travelling in two trucks to their home states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, in the wee hours of last Saturday [16th May] dying when their trucks collided. Those visuals are sure to haunt us for a long time. The actual number of people who resorted to risky road journeys and were killed will be known only when the current exodus is over. Such tragedies could have been averted had concerned authorities communicated with them and consoled them with compassion and looked after them. Instead these desperate people were sometimes beaten up and detained - not handled humanely and with dignity by some of the law enforcing agencies.
It is heartening that some of the states are now arranging buses in their attempts to help the stranded migrant workers go to their home states. Yesterday [18thMay] there was some good news for migrants from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar waiting for buses from Ghaziabad, Thane and Bengaluru. There were massive crowds thronging the Ram Lila Maidan in Ghaziabad for reserving train tickets to Bihar. They had walked kilometres from different parts of north India to reach here and have been waiting for long, some even for a few days. Sadly, no one bothered about observing physical distancing. A similar spectacle was seen yesterday in the Thane bus station near Mumbai, though the numbers were much less compared to Ghaziabad. Serpentine queues were there with people waiting almost endlessly for a chance to get into a Maharashtra state transport bus which would drop them free at the Madhya Pradesh border. From there they could proceed to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, some of those waiting told reporters. But the problem was that the number of passengers was restricted to less than two dozen to facilitate physical distancing.
The second category of those who waited with patience had their own share of woes. When the Shramik trains were launched, they had to book them online and in most cases the forms were in English and had to seek help, which was difficult to find. The migrant workers who have no return fare from the contractors or the establishments that had employed them had to fend for themselves. Most of them had no money and expected the government to bear the cost. There is still no clarity on how the government justified the move by giving a breakup of their share as to who should put the bill. The central government said that 85% of the fare was subsidized by them and the remaining 15% was to be borne by the respective state governments; migrants however were seen saying that they had paid. A PIL filed in the Supreme Court pleaded for directions to the government to allow migrant workers to go home and arrange for their transport. The apex court last Saturday decided to close the case. So, there is no clarity on the railways bearing the cost and the workers were free to walk. Later regular trains were also introduced. Those who had to travel by these trains had to undergo testing for COVID19 before boarding and again at their respective destinations and go through compulsory quarantine for 14 days either in free government facilities or at designated hotels on payment.
As far as those Indians stranded abroad are concerned, they had an endless wait to board one of those “Vande Bharat” Air India evacuation flights which the government arranged. These Air India flights commenced on 7th May and they had to pay the fares. It is reported that there are plenty of workers, who either had lost their jobs or those who had no money to pay for the Air India tickets. Someone in the social media questioned the term evacuation, as it was a government mission to get the stranded or jobless Indians to be brought back.
There was a major evacuation of 170,000 from the gulf following Kuwait’s invasion by Saddam Hussain’s Iraq in 1990, during the last days of the government led by V P Singh. That was a real evacuation by the V P Singh government as no money was charged from the Indians who were evacuated by the government. Siting this precedent, there were demands this time also for the government to foot the bill but to no avail. For clarity and confirmation, I spoke to Ambassador K P Fabian who was then the Joint Secretary, [Gulf]Ministry of External Affairs. The former I F S officer answered thus, “The GOI decided not to charge the evacuees. The decision was taken at the Sub- Committee headed by I K Gujral where other ministries were represented at MOS level. MEA took the line that it was GOD's responsibility to bring to India citizens abroad in distress. As the J S [Gulf] I was not even asked to give an estimate of the expenditure. Of course after the operation, MEA paid the bill presented by Air India after due scrutiny“. Questions are being raised as to why the present government could not follow that precedent. Obviously, that was a war situation and the evacuation of 1.7 lakh Indian citizens was a rescue mission. In the current situation there is a major economic crisis with the country facing the coronavirus pandemic, a natural disaster, what the legal fraternity calls ‘Vis Major’ or an ‘act of god’; free from human intervention which does not warrant state liability. Aren’t victims of natural disasters like earthquakes, floods or tsunami given ex gratia compensations? We can argue that all Indian evacuees should not have been charged by Air India in grace!
Let us hope that our migrants from home and abroad will finally reach their homes safely. There will definitely be light at the end of the tunnel and they will see a new dawn, rebuilding their lives with hope and resilience.