How India Can Solve the "Catch-22 Situation" of Allowing Migrant Workers to Return Home
The mathematics of six feet apart is easy to understand: It
requires each one of us to keep a minimum of six feet distance from others
around us. It helps to keep the new coronavirus at bay. However, cracking this
formula successfully on the ground is very challenging and requires complex
decision-making in a densely-populated country like India.
For the migrant workers and daily wage earners, living in
crammed tiny tenements, it is impossible to live by this formula. But they have
been running away from far scarier conditions of their lives than the
impossibility of remaining six feet apart.
No other country has seen such images as thousands of bodies
of migrant workers gathered in one place as one moving mass, jostling and
rubbing against each other, desperate to reach their homes. The visuals could
make anybody break a sweat.
The migrant worker's situation remains a tight knot
difficult to untie and smoothen. Even today, workers can be seen walking down
highways, on roads, circumventing the vigilante police and sneaking their way
home on foot. Such is their desperation.
A large part of the government machinery is geared toward
handing the food crisis for the poor and marginalised and in the upkeep of
those who moved out of their regular places of stay to shelter homes and camp sites. But that is doing the obvious.
What is beyond obvious is what will ultimately define how
well India did when this unprecedented historic
crisis struck and stared us in our
face. How we respond will definitely be written about, for many years to come,
so it is better we adopt some clear thinking now and take some difficult but
massive, humongous, hard steps to get cracking on this challenge.
There is no point in praising and appreciating too often-as
has happened in the speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-those who are
already in safe places and who have the blanket of internet access, binge-watching,
home-cooked food, food supplies at their doorstep and also the support of
financial savings. Beyond having to be at home all the time and feeling bored
and depressed, there don't seem to be many challenges there. Appreciating their
effort to keep body and soul together is not where the country's energies and
thoughts should be spent.
It is our migrant worker's souls and bodies coming undone
right before us that should be our concern. It is time to bring comfort to the
man or woman who is last in line.
The issue of workers is aggravating even further today, as
fixing two meals a day for her/him is getting tough. Even NGOs and volunteers,
the major forces handling food distribution alongside government, are either
running thin on resources or enthusiasm, or both.
Added to this challenge is the state of worker's health,
which is an advantage for us so far, but may not be so tomorrow. They may
slowly see a drop in immunity of their young bodies as they are squeezed dry of
money, go hungry, are exhausted, tense and worried about themselves and their
families. Therefore, today is when we should act.
A migrant worker cannot afford to be corona cautious. That
too makes him different. He often comes out on the roads in desperation, hoping to catch a train or a bus, or demanding one be
arranged for him, throwing all caution to the winds. We have to be cautious for
And here comes the Catch-22. If the migrant workers are
allowed to go home to the various nooks and corners of the country, they may
spread the disease far and wide, rendering all the advantages gained till today
null and void. But if they are made to stay 'jahan ho vahin', or where they
are, then they would not only face hunger themselves but may trigger a bigger
raging corona fire albeit in the limited geographical areas where they are
huddled together. Even in ordinary times, their desperation makes our migrant
worker to not stay in one place and move about a lot and this has been
difficult to manage in spite of inhuman police danda.
Therefore, the focus should now shift to solving this unique
Catch 22: how do we do both, get the worker to his home to bring peace to his
soul and rest to his body and at the same time not let him be the spreader of
the virus far and wide.
That is the challenge the government should take head-on
now. Meet the historic crisis in an equally historical, unprecedented sort of
Is it that workers are seen more as a mass of
infection-carrying bodies, and less as those who themselves need rescuing,
protection from the threat? Here lies our bias and probably double standard.
Our bias becomes visibly starker when seen against certain
other events such as bringing back in 28 high-end buses a batch of 1,599
tourists to their homes in Gujarat and
about 200 others to Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and other
states, for they were stuck in Uttarakhand's Haridwar. Similarly, the Uttar Pradesh
government has sent some
300 buses to bring back students stuck
in Rajasthan's Kota so that they don't panic and get depressed. True, the
tourists and students were stranded and caught unawares and needed to be
helped, but so are workers, they too have been caught unawares and are
This reflects how little thought and concern we show to
those who work the hardest in our country. Definitely they don't receive even
an ounce of the love that is being showered on the tourists and students.
All the 300 buses that were arranged for the stranded
students were sanitised, arrangements were made for food and water, masks and
sanitisers, as also for screening them for Covid-19.
One would not deny that there are lakhs of workers compared
with the relatively small number of tourists and students. It is also true that
in the very initial stages of the lockdown, some arrangements were made to
transport workers, but that service was abruptly ended and was not effectively planned. Does this mean we are to do only what is easily feasible
and manageable? Isn't this a crisis sweeping the globe which needs
extraordinary efforts on part of everybody?
Here is a challenge-and it brings an opportunity to make
history. As also it may even mean good politics. The sheer numbers of workers
who need assistance to reach home is sure to win hearts and leave the world
awe-struck. It may even earn India and the government global praise like never
There is a strong case for running buses and trains
especially for workers for 4-5 days. This should be an exception and a special
operation. This does not mean the start of regular transport services. It needs
to be well-arranged and well-planned, with every eventuality calculated for. A
strong will is what is needed.
Workers, too, can be screened at the starting point of their
journeys, just as passengers at airports and the students from Kota were
screened. They all can be given masks, gloves, food, and water.
All possible chaos and herding together that this can cause
must be anticipated, avoided and managed through proper planning and
Transport should be only from end to end. Railways stations
and bus addas at both ends can be sanitised by spraying disinfectant and
workers can be screened again on arrival. Those found sick can be separated and
isolated. The scale is massive but India can do it-it must at least attempt
this. The elections that are held in India are a kind of challenge that no
other country faces. This is something only as massive as that-if we can do
that, surely we can do this?
Currently the country is under lockdown. The roads and
highways are all empty and the railway tracks clear. A lot of people are free,
too. Many more volunteers can be roped in to contribute to this massive challenge.
There is no dearth of Good Samaritans in India. In fact, there are perhaps so
many that India is quite unique in that sense too.
With our effort we would not only be setting an example but
also untie this Catch-22 juggernaut that we are trapped in. Fatalism appears to
be rife in our thinking pattern. Running such an operation of hope and relief
can help us break it.
Once the workers reach home, the local police stations and
village and town clinics can be roped in to monitor their health. Strict physical
distancing instructions are already being communicated in rural India. We need
to believe that everyone will do their best to protect their own 'jaan' (lives).
If workers can only get home for the lockdown, the burden on
shelter homes and camp sites will probably become more manageable. In any case,
for how long can the ongoing, very often piecemeal, relief work sustain the
many thousands who are unable to access basic daily meals?
Perhaps many of us believe that the suffering of the poor is
a necessary price to be paid to tide over this deadly pandemic. This is
because, somewhere deep down, we believe that workers are "used" to living in
sub-human conditions and they can bear with this too. That, again, is our bias
and it is preventing us from trying to accomplish the extraordinary. We can
break this too. This is the time to do our own hard work for our hard-workers.
The task is challenging but not impossible.
First, we need to acknowledge that it is the workers who
hold our economy together. Their work is what matters the most. The
construction worker, the pushers of carts, the delivery workers, the farm
workers, the factory worker, they all do the most essential work that gives us
the life that we now lead. Not that they need to be valued and loved simply
because of their usefulness to society, but because they are humans.
Before our workers end up in the intensive care for
non-Covid causes, we need to realise that it is our ability to reason and
plan that is already in intensive
care. It needs massive doses of oxygen to recuperate to new life.
There is a strong case to listen to the desperate cries of
video-making, foot-journeying, pleading workers and move the wheels of the
trains and buses for them and help them reach the safety of their homes and in
the lap of their own support system.
Once we all are well spread out, we would have worked out
the six-feet-apart mathematics on ground.
author is a documentary film maker and a screenplay writer based in Mumbai. The
views are personal.