My heart sank as I saw the viral video of a toddler tugging at the bed sheet shrouding his dead mother at Muzaffarpur railway station. The child is too young to understand the enormity of the tragedy that has befallen him but the searing scene is a metaphor for the gigantic crisis the migrants in India have endured during the lockdown.
Men, women and children dying in train bogies, on the highways of hunger and exhaustion, at railway tracks and in road accidents—there is an unending saga of terrible tragedies visited upon the migrants going home. They built the big cities, its metros and malls, boulevards and ballrooms at the glitzy five-star hotels and tony clubs. They ran the essential services as they worked as cabbies and rickshawallas, milkmen and newspaper vendors, courier boys and helpers at canteens. They ran the services which some of us took for granted. Now the same cogs in the wheels have been discarded. We have a name for them too. Migrants. The millions who might have served us but don’t belong here. When we call our own citizens migrants, we instantly disown them. So their plight during playan (migration) back to their homes in villages and kasbas has hit the headlines but the phenomenon seems to have been normalized.
They live on the margins since birth. Call it their karma or the loopholes in the policies that never enabled them to call themselves truly settled. In the villages they are mostly landless labourers, rental or marginal farmers. Since starvation often stares them in the face in the village, they come to cities in search of work. In cities they slum at deprived, depressed shanties, work at unorganized sectors, eating often at Bissis (eating houses) or at cheap hotels.
The situation of most migrant workers at the textile town Bhiwandi—often called Manchester of Asia—worsened also because the Bissis closed. Away from their families, these loom workers came at the mercy of loom owners. They initially survived on the sympathy of their owners but, as the lockdown period increased and work came to a standstill, most owners abandoned their workers. “For how long can we feed these workers? Our resources are limited and income has stopped,” rued Yasin Momin, a loom owner and an advocate in Bhiwandi, to me before the exodus of migrant workers began. Now that looms have been allowed to resume operation with adherence of social distancing norms, there is acute shortage of workers as most have left for home.
Before the Shramik trains were brought in—the services are inadequate–many migrants walked for miles, hitch-hiked and even crammed trucks and lorries after paying disproportionately high fare. They braved the scorching sun, thirst and hunger to be with their dear ones. “Agar marenge bhi to apne logon ke beech mein marange (Even if we have to die, we will die amidst our own people,” said the migrants, trudging the highways.
The indignity that we forced them to suffer was evident when many heavily pregnant women gave birth to babies on their way home. An atrociously bad treatment to the migrants hit the headlines also when the world saw a woman dragging her trolley bag through towns and cities with her toddler son sleeping on the suitcase. A boy from my village in Bihar left Mumbai on a bicycle. After paddling for 14 days and crossing many states and several cities, he reached the village. I shivered at the thought: How could he paddle for so many days, to that huge distance? Two other boys of my village, both migrant workers, paid Rs 4500 each to a truck driver who took four days and dropped them off at the district headquarters from where they caught another vehicle to reach the village.
Penury forces people to take risks. Hunger makes the sufferer to break rules too. How can we forget images of groups of migrants fighting among themselves for packets of food at railway platforms? I also saw some migrants breaking the glass doors of a shop at a railway platform and lifting bottles of water and other beverages. Try telling these hungry souls that shoplifting is a crime. Empty belies have little meaning of sermons and certitude.
And the pandemic has thrown up many heroes. So there is a farmer near Delhi who spent nearly Rs 70,000 on air tickets of 10 workers for their journey home. Many have sponsored buses for the poor workers desperate to reach home. Former minorities’ commission chairman in Maharashtra and BJP politician Haji Arafat Shaikh told me that he would arrange 300 buses for migrants’ travel home. How much he succeeds remains to be seen. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Congress tried to arrange buses for the migrants but failed as the UP police said many vehicles on the list provided by her aides didn’t have fitness certificates.
People irrespective of caste and creed came forward to provide food and water to the migrants. There are many unsung heroes who braved police batons to provide help to the poor. Many who were stigmatized and blamed for spreading coronavirus gave their plasma before leaving the quarantine centres. Many others were found distributing food packets and water bottles among the migrants at highways and railway stations. Such gestures give hope that all is not lost yet.
However, as I sat with my little daughter to eat dinner tonight, the image of that toddler trying to wake up his dead mother at the railway platform in Muzaffarpur seemed like a sledgehammer on the country’s collective conscience.
Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.