Isn't it Moses time for Chief Ministers of the eastern states? How long will they silently watch their people in far off states protesting the lack of food, water, money, shelter, and crying to go home, before they say, "let my people go"?
If you watched the chaos at Bandra station, of thousands of migrant labourers desperate for a train-ride home, and the police lathi charge, you have to realise that these migrants are at the end of their tether. They had prayed for the lockdown to end, not to get back to work but in the hope that they could escape their desperate situation on 'foreign territory", at the mercy of government agencies for handouts or meals. Some are luckier that NGOs reach them, or the state government is more efficient, but in almost all cases their lives are traumatic.
The mandals in NDTV's coverage in Thiruvananthapuram yesterday demonstrated how useless this lockdown was for all these migrants. Crowded in one 25-room building, these labourers hadn't been paid by their contractor (he has shut off his phone, they complained), the food given by the state government had run out and they had now pooled in to buy whatever they could and hoped to survive on one meal a day.
Similarly, pictures in this morning's newspaper of hundreds of migrants under a bridge in Delhi is a reminder that even the efficiency of the Delhi Government, which, like Kerala, has been very active, isn't enough to handle this gargantuan problem. And gargantuan it is. While lakhs may have made it home in the first rush after the lockdown, especially in buses arranged by the UP Government, millions remain scattered across the country in 'booming' cities and towns of Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra and southern states.
These people are clearly not staying in any form of social distance that would conform to COVID precautions. How can they? Where is the space? Watching them standing together, talking to TV reporters, or huddled under the bridge, or even in their shanties, shows a mockery of social distancing for this class of Indians. To believe that there is any real social distancing in slums is to be blind. If the virus hasn't spread there, social distancing has nothing to do with it. It could be that the carriers of the virus, the travelling class, their employers, their bosses, their customers in restaurants and hotels, have been in lockdown in their houses and so haven't been able to spread the virus to them.
There is absolutely no sense in keeping them in lockdown in such places, be it out of a sense of protecting the city dwellers or the villages. The villages are quite capable of handling their own quarantines just as well as we are. Almost every village has made sure that people returning are quarantined; in UP, the homecoming workers have been housed in schools etc for the two-week cooling period. If UP can do it, why can't other states?
Shipping the migrants out also helps the cities cope; they can divert those resources to deal with the spreading virus, rather than run around handing food packets.
One has to ask, why does the migrant worker want to go home? Because that is where they feel most comfortable and safe. As the guy said to NDTV, "If we go back to our native place, we can at least work there in the fields and earn some money. How can we sit idle, knowing very well that my family stays far away and I can't even send them money."
There seems to be some misbegotten belief that keeping the workers in the cities where they work will help kick-start the economy on May 4.
The first thing these poor people are going to do is get up and catch the fastest train home. They will have suffered 40 days of absolute misery, and the majority of them will want the solace of home and family. They will have absolutely no interest in going back under the hot sun to construction sites, with a contractor who is unlikely to pay them their arrears in any hurry, assuming that the contractor actually has the funds to do it. There is no government to enforce this either. Nor will restaurants and all the other services where these people work resume on day one. By the time the owners get things going and customers overcome the fear of sitting close to each other, these businesses will be running at very low levels.
Nor should employers and the government believe that those who managed to get home, or were home for Holi, will be on the first train back after the lockdown ends. They are afraid of the virus, just like us, and fear that the cities will continue to be the centres of outbreaks for a while, even after the lockdown is over.
So why don't the Chief Ministers of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam jointly ask the centre to run special trains to their state capitals from Delhi, Jaipur, Gujarat, Mumbai, Pune etc? They can easily put up sanitising tents prior to boarding and provide food packets for the 24-36 hour journeys. Once they arrive in the state capitals, buses can take them home. Yes, it's a big exercise but it is better done in an organised manner now, rather than allowing anger, fear and alienation fester in the prolonged lockdown, which could lead to long-term social and political problems.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV)
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