WHAT IS A CONTINUING PLIGHT ?

"Never Seen Such Insensitivity to Migrant Labour"

By Alok Sinha

A word, or a situation, often used by each one of us is “plight”.
The plight of being a woman, discriminated against in the most open as also the most subtle ways. The plight of youth, looking for a job, in a jobless world spoilt further by inequalities and entitlements. The plight of communal or caste violence, perpetrated albeit occasionally, but with all three grim fears of it spreading it far and wide. The plight of the upwardly mobile info tech community, wanting more and more and yet not getting what he thought is really ample. The plight of the landless farmhand, who works every day for small wages, only to regularly add to the growing wealth of the landed. The plight of the contractual school teacher, who is shown the door when the school is to be closed.
This list could on, and on, ad nauseum. But it is the plight of the homeless migrant labour that could be called most fragile, shaky to the core, ready to crumble at the slightest of instability, literally like a house of cards blown away by the slightest whistle.
Return of the COVID surge brings the migrant labour to the forefront, as it has happened again now. And once again, he has been simply taken for granted, dealt with insensitively as if he is a piece of luggage to be moved around impromptu !

Delhi has had a lockdown, since 17 April. It was initially for just 2 days. And thereafter, on Monday 17 April, it was announced, rather majestically, that the LG and the CM will meet at 11 am to decide on further measures. They did meet, for more than two hours. At 2 pm, on same day, the CM announced, so sympathetically, that a weeklong lockdown would recommence at 10 pm that same evening, so that the hapless populace does not suffer a further COVID spread. 

The middle class, in their homes, expressed their frustration, on the social media, at being once again about to be cooped up, coping with the anxieties and depression caused by such sudden imprisonment. The netas fought blaming each other for the COVID surge. The TV media had a field day reporting from here and there, asking people on the streets how they felt, as if no one yet knew how indeed they would feel. 

In the middle of all this, the helpless, daily wage migrant labour not only lost his wages, his job, also his home, because the landlord being a realist showed him the door. He was abandoned again, so that the national capital city could continue to live.

And unprotestingly, noiselessly, obediently, even meekly, the worker from Uttarakhand, UP, MP, Bihar, West Bengal, perhaps even Orissa, started the familiar trudge to the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal (near Ghaziabad) and Railway stations. No one bothered to find out, not even the ever alert media, if the LG and the CM of Delhi told the host state govts of Uttarakhand, UP, MP, Bihar to arrange for buses to take their people back home. Thousands upon thousands of such labour thronged Anand Vihar, piled onto the buses, even their rooftops, paying exorbitant fares just to all so suddenly get back home. The thousands who could not get on to the buses sat on the roads and arteries, waiting for some kind of public transport. And certainly not their fault that there was no social distancing. Such smart protocol just was not possible due to the sudden movement of so many thousands of the working people who drive the engines of economic growth.

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The returning migrant labour certainly did reach back home. They will also ultimately be given some free rations too. But they did suffer, unsung, days of a difficult, hazardous journey back home. They would lose the chance of earning daily wages in the cities. And their little savings will again get wiped out. 
We should spare a thought for the migrant working people and their sufferings. Sufferings which are undue. And sufferings which could have been reduced if some advance planning, even of 2-3 days, had been done. 

If only the system were to think of giving even 3-4 days’ notice for the “migration” to become a less difficult, somewhat tolerable “reverse migration”. What a smart play of words, to become the baseline for so many doctoral thesis in the years to come by. And we will yet allow the migrant labour to throng the cities, because we need them as much as they need us.

If only the system were to think of giving even 3-4 days’ notice for the “migration” to become a less difficult, somewhat tolerable “reverse migration”. What a smart play of words, to become the baseline for so many doctoral thesis in the years to come by. And we will yet allow the migrant labour to throng the cities, because we need them as much as they need us.

So if a national lockdown is to be put in place, as was being talked about now even in the Supreme Court, there could be a 5-day notice, so that there is sufficient time to arrange a stable reverse migration, and also all agencies of both Central as well as State Governments have time to plan out helpful schemes to see it all the way through, including what the working people will do when they suddenly become idle and jobless.
And yet the endless suffering of waiting and watching goes on. No one knows if the partial lockdowns since a month back will be extended, will be relaxed, will be made tougher. No one knows, because the behaviour of the COVID virus is mysterious, as yet unknown to science. 

In this sea of ignorance, everyone suffers, even the well-to-do. But, most of all, the migrant labour, out of his village, on daily wages, unregistered, with no labour laws to help him, with no labour movement to fight for him, is truly abandoned. All he can get is free rations from the Mai-Baap Sarkar, and some attention from a media already full of oxygen-and-vaccine stories. 

In this sea of ignorance, everyone suffers, even the well-to-do. But, most of all, the migrant labour, out of his village, on daily wages, unregistered, with no labour laws to help him, with no labour movement to fight for him, is truly abandoned. All he can get is free rations from the Mai-Baap Sarkar, and some attention from a media already full of oxygen-and-vaccine stories. 


Charity seems a patronising term. But many missions of charity are needed today.


—By Alok Sinha, who has seen 35 years in the IAS, but never seen such insensitivity to the migrant labour, as is being witnessed for one year.

आलोक सिन्हा
Alok Sinha
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