Migrants : They deserved better
By Sam Verma
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author’s and do not represent the views of Ration Square.
Metropolitan cities like Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore bustle with migrants from all religions, ethnicities, states and backgrounds. They are all people with dreams; with hopes to find a job better than what they can find in their hometown so they can provide an education to their children so they don’t have to see their children go down the same treacherous path as them- a path full of hard work and struggles. They are parents who do not wish to see their children go hungry. They are children, whose parents wait for them and a paycheck so they can buy cattle, repair their house, get much needed medical treatment. They are people with problems, they are people with a history, they are people with needs and most importantly, they are people. They are citizens of India.
The government and the Supreme court have failed to recognise that. India was one of the first countries to bring back citizens stranded in other countries when international travel became restricted due to the pandemic. Special Air India planes were sent to bring Indians home. In answer to a question in the Lok Sabha on March 4, the Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan said, "Air India has raised a bill of ₹ 5,98,90,352 for operating two special flights to China." The state carrier spent ₹ 92,566.23 on each of the 647 people to evacuate them from China. There was no charge to the passengers. Subsequently, Indians stranded in Italy, Japan and Iran were also provided the same facilities and brought home. It was a thoughtful step taken by the government, however the Central government did say that they would pay for 85% of the cost but Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the central government, said the fare for the special Shramik trains organised by the railways is paid either by the originating state or the receiving one. The migrant workers are not required to pay the fares, Mehta told a bench of Justices.
There were no measures taken to make sure the migrants were not harassed into paying for tickets. They were simply told to file a report. This issue created quite a bit of political controversy between the Centre and the States. In the end, the migrants were the ones who paid for their tickets, despite not having earned any wages in months. Why didn’t the government charge the middle class and the rich, who clearly could afford to leave the country and come back ? These people went as students, tourists and business people, all belonging to a category of people who could afford it.
One of the labourers hailing from Patna in Bihar told India Today, "I had Rs 1,000 left with me, half of which has been spent on the ticket. I do not know how I am going to feed my kids back home."
The migrants deserved better.
The government should have given 5/7days notice like other countries did, like New Zealand and the UK. This would have given the migrants enough time to prepare to go home like they do on major festivals every year.
The first coronavirus case was detected in India on January 30. The number of cases kept rising through March. The government had enough time to prepare the country for an impending lockdown. But on March 13, officials stated that the coronavirus pandemic was “not an emergency”. 5 days later, the “self imposed” curfew was put in order. The announcement set off an exodus of migrant workers who feared the closure of work in cities would leave them vulnerable. But as they rushed to get back to their villages, the Indian Railways cancelled most trains. On March 21, the entire rail network came to a halt.
At 8 pm on March 24, the prime minister announced a three-week nationwide lockdown starting midnight. Just 4 hours to prepare.
Imagine the fear and the worry they felt. They hadn’t earned in months, the cases were rising. They were forced to be in tight spaces, completely reliant on NGOs for food, whose funds were dwindling as costs of such a magnitude have not been incurred before. Food was meagerly distributed. Migrants who travelled on trains had to drink the tap water from toilets. The beatings they received for wanting to go home. The rejections they faced. In a country like India with one of the highest indexes for wealth inequalities in a world, where inequalities are deeply rooted at a socioeconomic level and is the impediment for equal access to constitutional rights, the pandemic brought the harsh reality of the perception of migrants.
When the pandemic is over, when factories require workers, when the city needs bus drivers and other essential service workers, when the buildings need to be built, housing complexes need to be protected, cleaned and maintained, when the roads need to be maintained and repaired, when life goes back to normal we will release the migrants deserved better. This unjust treatment and the lack of planning has scared many from returning back to the city, in fear of not finding a job or the second wave of the pandemic. Going back to the city requires revisiting the same roads they walked on for days on end, in the summer sun with bare minimum food to eat and water to drink. The migrant crisis isn’t only exclusive to the pandemic, it is significant enough to impact life after the pandemic.
The migrants deserved better.