No country for the poor

Mohammed Wajihuddin

Utho! meri dunya ke ghareebo ko jaga do/
kakh-e-umra ke dar-o-diwar hila do

(Rise, wake the poor of my world up from slumber/
Shake the doors and walls of the mansions of the prosperous)
–Allama Iqbal

Some stale chapatis strewn between the tracks, a few upturned, forlorn sandals left unbruised and a few plastic bags fluttering in the wind. These were some of the few belongings of the 16 poor migrants whom a goods train ran over between Aurangabad and Jalna on early Friday morning. Hungry and exhausted from walking for over 40 kilometres, these poor migrants couldn’t have found a better “bed” than the railway tracks to sleep on. The fact that some stale breads were found from the accident site prove that these deprived men and women were not entirely hungry when they went to sleep. They must have taken a few morsels before they fell off to a sleep they never woke up from. They must have hoped to pick up next morning from where they had halted. But for them tomorrow never came.

Why did the dispossessed had to meet this cruel fate? While surfing an avalanche of social media posts on the tragedy, I repeatedly came across a shamelessly insensitive question? “But why did they sleep on the tracks?” This is nothing but vacuous moralising. The middle class snobbery never fails to beguile me.

Those who have lost their jobs, survived on meagre ration doled out by government or private agencies and are forced to undertake long walks to their villages from towns and cities don’t look for the luxurious beds in the night. The privileged class that cannot empathise with the plight of the poor migrants have no right to mock them.

And what is being done to send these laborers to their destinations?

These poor have been stranded in the cities and industrial towns for the last 45 days or so due to Corona-induced lockdown. One state government decided to stop them from leaving for their respective states presumably to please the builders’ lobby. As if these were bonded labourers. The state government relented only after a nationwide outrage broke out.

Now take my city Mumbai. There are around five lakh migrants in Mumbai from Bihar alone. The desperation of the daily wagers is to be seen to be believed. Seeing their plight and the lack of adequate preparation on the part of the government to take these stranded poor to their destinations, Bihar Navnirman Yuva Abhiyan, an NGO, has approached the Union Railway Ministry with an offer to pay for the rail fares of Bihari migrants and demanded 50 trains for this purpose. “We will dig into the pockets of Bihari entrepreneurs and businessmen. We will also do crowd funding and try to send at least 50,000 workers on 50 trains to their homes,” said Abhiyan’s organiser Tanveer Alam.
A huge number of migrants are stuck at Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum and a corona hotspot. Having lived in Mahim, just a bridge across this sprawling slum, for four years before I moved to the far western suburb Mira Road, I know a thing or two about Dharavi.

Crammed into 10×10 often windowless, stuffy rooms, most residents here see sunlight only when they come out of their tiny tenements and into the rat-infested streets. The chawls sit cheek by jowl and are often two-storied. An iron or wooden ladder takes the inmates of upper floor to the similarly tiny rooms. Here 7 or 8 men sleep, cook, cough, laugh and many of them smoke too. To answer call of the nature they queue up outside a couple of toilets at the end of the lane.

Did I say toilets?

These are actually holes in the surface made over open, stinking drains filled with garbage. Men and women, holding lota or small buckets in hand stand in the queue awaiting their turn. If the pressure becomes unbearable, they knock on the rickety doors of the often dark or dimly lit toilets. Two categories of people are put to huge predicament and embarrassment too. These are the ones chronically constipated and those who happen to suffer from loose motions.
For bathing, they use mohri, a small place in a corner of their rooms which is also used to clean utensils.

Now tell me, do we expect the dwellers of such cramped spaces to maintain social distancing? They can do better social distancing at their wide, open, spaced-out villages.

Now, after the announcement of special trains for the migrants, the authorities have put the desperately poor to more tests. It is the complex registration process that is proving to be a daunting task. So every migrant has to fill a form which many complain are available at Rs 50.These forms, along with health certificates from registered doctors, have to be deposited to local police stations. Many say a doctor charges Rs 500 from each applicant. So, even after spending Rs 550 and standing in queue for hours outside police stations, a migrant doesn’t know ‘when he will board a train to his state?’

Having lost their jobs and spent whatever little savings they had, they have to go back to where they actually belong. They belong to their small hamlets, often dusty and deprived of amenities that we townsfolk take for granted. As drivers, cabbies, security guards, vegetable vendors, plumbers, electricians, maids, construction workers and delivery boys, they slog and sweat it out so that we can live comfortably. But they live here on the margins.

The air-conditioning in my bedroom is malfunctioning but I am helpless because I cannot call an AC mechanic. My wife gave me a haircut with the help of a trimmer because, as former minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha complained, most men, including yours truly, had begun to look like Jairam Ramesh of the Congress. Women are stressed more as saloons too, along with barbers’ shops, remain shut.

As I sweat despite the ceiling fan humming hurriedly in my room, I think of the countless families who have not eaten properly for days and have been walking in the scorching sun. There are men, women, even pregnant women, children, walking on the highways and railway tracks. Sometimes sympathetic truck, tractor or trolley drivers give them lifts. Sometimes good Samaritans feed them on the way or just distribute biscuits among them. I couldn’t eat food last night when I saw on TV a huge crowd scrambling to catch some packets of biscuits being hurled from a lorry. Biscuits and water are what many families walking on foot are depending on for hours before someone gives them food packets.

They live on the margins. They are marginal farmers and they are depressed if crops fail because of trickery of the monsoon. With little food at home and many mouths to feed, the men have to seek work in the cities. The landless labourers are worse off because they are often in debt and will starve if they don’t step out and find work, any work, in big cities.

Now the big cities cannot keep them. With dashed hopes, heavy heart and fatigued feet, these poor migrants walk on. Hopefully, they will return with fresh dreams in their eyes in a few months.

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.

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