Of the total workforce of India, only about 7% work in the organised sector and the rest in the unorganised sector of our economy. They earn their livelihood generally as daily wage workers. Those who are unable to find employment in their immediate vicinity either migrate to other districts in the same state or even to distant areas which are in a position to offer them work. Most migrant workers are from the poorer states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They generally migrate to places like Delhi-NCR, Punjab, Haryana, the industrial centres in UP like Kanpur, Gujarat, Mumbai and Maharashtra generally, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The more skilled would migrate to any place, even abroad for better wages. Estimates of such migrant workers vary wildly from 4 crore to 40 crore for the simple reason that these workers are not registered, neither by the state from where they migrate nor by the state to which they migrate. But they are not stateless because they retain their links with their villages, transfer money to their families, even go back and work on their meagre farms during sowing and harvesting. Nothing proves the unity of India more forcefully than these poor moving all over in search of bread. For them, India is one country.
Today, these workers are in the news for all the wrong reasons. Their savings are meagre, they have lost their livelihood, they and their families have nothing to fall back upon and all they want to do is to return to their villages where perhaps they hope to survive somehow. This is their only fault.
I had repeatedly warned the government through my tweets about the plight of these workers and the need to take care of them in these difficult times. I had suggested to state governments that they make arrangements, in consultation with the host governments, to repatriate them under proper medical supervision so that the corona virus suspects could be identified and quarantined and the rest allowed to return to their homes. If the rich returning from abroad could get this treatment, why not migrant workers? Buses could be arranged, food and medicine provided, medical check-ups organized and migrant workers taken to their destination. This was not done; instead, we saw the unseemly sight of countless of these workers walking home to their villages, being not only ill-treated by the authorities but in one case even being sprayed with sanitisers. They were subjected to extreme hardships and humiliation. Hundreds of them are still sleeping on the Yamuna riverbed in Delhi. The recent events in Bandra in Mumbai and Surat in Gujarat demonstrated clearly that these workers, wherever they are, are not happy and want to return home. The earlier scenes of thousands of these workers crowding Anand Vihar in Delhi and other places plus what we saw in Bandra and Surat prove two things clearly: one, that their situation is grave and two, social distancing is only for the elite and not for the poor. As some of them said on TV channels, they will probably die of hunger before the virus gets them.
All this was eminently avoidable. Everyone including those in authority knew all the facts I have mentioned above. They would also have been privy to much more information than ordinary mortals outside government. The lockdown came as a surprise to people, including its duration and its severity. But it was not a surprise for those who took the decision. They had all the time in the world to plan things better, specially as far as the poor and deprived were concerned. But has that not been the hallmark of this government? The decisions of this government are like thunder from the sky: sudden, loud, severe in their impact and damaging to life, limb and livelihood. People have come to dread the 8 PM addresses to the nation by our beloved Prime Minister.
I am surprised at the role of the bureaucracy, however. That ministers do not matter in this government is a well-known fact. But what about the civil servants? I have spent two-and-a-half-decades in the civil service of this country. I know both from personal experience and otherwise that Indian civil servants are as good as they come. During the last seven decades and more of our independent existence, they have risen to every challenge the country has faced: partition, famines, riots, political instability, strong and weak political leadership, authoritarianism, economic sanctions, natural calamities - you name them and the civil servants have always come forward. They have anticipated events, planned well for the outcome and measured up to the challenges. Where are they in this crisis?
The fallout of the lockdown on daily wage earners, specially the migrants should and would have stared them in the face as they worked with their political bosses. Was the government warned? Was the government advised properly? And most importantly, what happened to such advice? These are questions which should and must be asked, even at this stage. The migrants must be taken care of, even at this late stage. Their suffering must be mitigated without loss of time. The decision-makers must have discussed the aftermath of the lockdown in all its implications. Some of them were as clear as daylight and could have been easily anticipated and taken care of. If it was not, as is evident now, it must be considered as a resounding failure.
We had a 21-day lockdown. Now it has been extended by another 19 days. I must plead ignorance if there is any numerological hocus-pocus in this. But 21 days are sufficient to prepare for any eventuality. The Bangladesh war was won in 14 days flat! The easiest thing to do is to use the hammer. It is the artistry of the goldsmith which is challenging.
Should I be saying all this today? Should we not fight together and get rid of the Virus first? Of course we should. Is anyone objecting to the lockdown? No, the entire country supported it, knowing full well that there was no other way. We are not objecting to its extension either. We shall even support its further extension, should that be necessary. All that one is asking for is a deal for the poor and helpless. Is that asking for too much? Is that not the responsibility of the governments, state and centre put together?
And as far as criticism is concerned, it cannot be a one-way street. The critics of the government must be restrained, but the government is free to beat its own drum, however unjustified. The members of the ruling party at the centre should feel free to criticise state governments wherever they are in opposition? The former BJP Chief Minister of Maharashtra can haul the present Maharashtra government over the coals for mishandling the migrant workers crisis. The Home Minister of the country will demand an explanation from the Chief Minister. The West Bengal government will receive an advisory from the centre on social distancing. The Jharkhand government can be condemned day in and day out. But the centre must remain above criticism. Some can even be incarcerated for violations. These are double standards being followed even in critical times.
Come and get me but please look after the migrant workers.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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