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- The 40-day lockdown was further extended at a time of sporadic expressions of resistance and anger by migrant workers in a few cities. Extreme precarity doesn’t have a singular expression. While some are responding with anger, others are responding with resignation. The severe distress among migrant workers in India is not entirely by chance. It has been marinating for a while but the epic new scale has been manufactured due to the unplanned and unilateral decision of a lockdown taken by the prime minister. The arbitrariness and unpreparedness are evident from the confusing messages from the central government concerning transport for migrants. [...] Notwithstanding the confusing orders, the constant shuffling of travel modes and costs further expose the central government’s lack of empathy, thought and planning.
- The migrant worker distress has also exposed the inherent fractures of the “one nation” narrative that is one of the unique selling propositions of the BJP government. While it goes against the grain of the idea of India that has a rich tradition of pluralism, it is also meaningless from a governance standpoint. Migrant workers don’t carry their ration cards and so haven’t been able to avail of government rations in the states where they are stranded. The employers, contractors mostly, have largely abandoned them without paying them wages. Consequently, they are left to scrounge for food and are left without money. In many cases, they are stranded without knowing the local language. In this situation, it is the poorer state governments of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, etc. that have attempted to seek out “their people” stranded in richer states such as Maharashtra or Haryana and make cash transfers to their account. The economies of these richer states have benefited from the labour of migrants from the poorer states. However, the richer states have neither extended any financial support nor forced employers to pay wages to the workers.
- Barring examples from Kerala and Telangana, most host states have demonstrated disregard for migrant workers. It behooves the host states to care about the migrant workers not only from a humanitarian standpoint but also from the perspective of the health of the economy. On its part, the central government has maintained a calibrated silence regarding this. Monopolising decisions and socialising losses are not what federalism is supposed to mean. Therefore, it is time that the poorer states realise that the unilateral lockdown is not just an assault on the dignity of the poor, but also an economic assault on the poorer state governments. Further, there has been a concerted effort by the central government and some host states to hold the labour captive in the richer states by making transportation procedures unreasonable.
- India seems to have lost that urge to consistently relate to injustice as an assault on democracy. Be it plight of migrants or minorities, their failure to strike wider chord tells truths about us. [...] There was no public outcry over this human tragedy and the victims themselves chose to mostly suffer in silence. They may have grumbled, or cursed under their breath, but our democracy does not seem to have encouraged them to really assert or demand their rights.
- I wanted to document, somehow, the strength of those people that I had known . . . when the migrant worker was living without any kind of protection.
- …And I was only concerned about the migrant worker, the people I had known best. I had been a migrant worker. So I began to see that my role—if I want to call it that—would be to document that period of time, but giving it some kind of spiritual strength or spiritual history.
- Migrant workers, dismissed by employers, enjoying no protection from their governments, often thrown out of their accommodation by their landlords, in urgent need of food, transport and money, driven by desperation to walk home. It is a scene many have described as reminiscent of the migration at Partition. This is the outcome of the largest and one of the strictest lockdowns in the world enforced during the coronavirus disease crisis — a lockdown that has been widely applauded internationally. Why has the outcry against this suffering inflicted on men and women who are more than 90% of India’s workforce been so muted? It is, I believe, in part at least, because those in a position to raise their voices have not identified themselves with those who are suffering.