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While many of us are trying to work or study from home during the lockdown and practice social distancing, there is a storm brewing as thousands of migrant workers struggle to make their perilous journey home, but many to no avail. Not only is this a matter of social and political urgency, but it is also another lens into what inequality looks and feels like today. In the face of this social upheaval, are we on the verge of a migrant exodus?

Image Source: Al Jazeera

Sunny Kapoor has to walk 230 km to his village with his wife and child as his family no longer has a form of sustenance. Fulendra Kumar is travelling from Ludhiana to his home town of Araria by bus and foot, and still has about 200km to cover like so many other millions. Meanwhile, Parma Bandari called his family from Nepal and informed them he would find a way to come home, just like nearly half a million other migrant workers like him from other countries. 

These are stories and plights that countless migrant workers are having to face due to the hasty three-week lockdown issued on 24th March just after the nation-wide curfew. As India has nearly 45 million economic migrants, with over 40 per cent being illiterate and already working low-paying jobs, this new reality has left many incapacitated by existential dead and a great sense of hopelessness. 

As India has nearly 45 million economic migrants, with over 40 per cent being illiterate and already working low-paying jobs, this new reality has left many incapacitated by existential dead and a great sense of hopelessness. 

The Dark Realities for India’s Migrant Workers 

The lockdown is finally beginning to show some of the most disastrous economic and social consequences in the country, not to mention some of the most gaping implementational and administrative weaknesses that we saw with previous decisions such as demonetisation back in 2016. The struggles of the workers coupled with the logistical challenges of the lockdown even prompted a UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet to call for more ‘domestic solidarity’ during this crisis.

Thousands of daily wage earners belonging to informal, unorganised sectors in the economy have had to pack up and leave for their home villages as they have lost their jobs, with thousands of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres to make their way back home. Many of these workers travel to more affluent cities in India to seek higher wages and better employment so that they can send back money to their families. In the wake of this crisis, it is impossible to track and take care of the workers. Moreover, many of them are unregistered as they are employed in unorganised sectors of the economy. 

Scenes and Acts of Dehumanisation 

Many of these migrant workers were thrown into a gyre of uncertainty and suffering. Some of them from the city of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh even saw their dignity and self-worth stripped bare in front of their very eyes as Indian official unceremoniously sprayed and doused disinfectant in a proposed ‘chemical solution.’

These actions remain reminiscent of the thuggery and callousness with which the government has seemed to resort to for the past few years when they are overwhelmed with the harsh truth and pushed to the tipping point. Police were even seen beating migrant workers with sticks when they were struggling to get back to their hometowns. Once again, this state-backed brand of continued and unsolicited brutality and vigilante justice only seeks to catalyse further paranoia and fear-mongering and is also an imperative question of human rights. 

Many of these migrant workers were thrown into a gyre of uncertainty and suffering. Some of them from the city of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh even saw their dignity and self-worth stripped bare in front of their very eyes as Indian official unceremoniously sprayed and doused disinfectant in a proposed ‘chemical solution.’

Since the lockdown, many workers have also been caught by police officials and asked to turn back for fear of spreading the virus to far, rural and remote parts of the country. As infrastructure has now ground to a complete halt, workers are unable to go home as they are unable to afford taxis or trains. 

Moreover, workers from Jharkhand and Bihar who have made it back home have been turned away from their own villages and subject to health checks. Some villages have even erected barricades out of fear of the transmission of the virus. So far, more than 22 migrants have lost their lives in the struggle to go back to their hometowns, with many even collapsing from hunger and exhaustion on the way. 

The Underlying Problem 

First and foremost, this lockdown has also highlighted the deficiencies in social security nets for more vulnerable groups and the hasty decision-making that remain far from inclusive and appropriate for the majority of the population. Some of the gruesome and humbling scenes we read about emphasise the stark realities we are living in and the true and ugly face of modern-day inequality and poverty, especially in rural economies and communities in the country who will now bear the brunt of a ‘reverse migration phenomena.’ Many of these workers are forced to leave their homes due to lack of education and opportunities and spend all their time away from their families, whilst struggling to earn a living in the anomie and poor working conditions of big cities in the country. 

Image Source: Bloomberg

The government should focus on galvanising social welfare systems in the country as this crisis is proving to be a poverty multiplier. It also reveals a major lack of anticipation on the part of the government as they have grossly underestimated the ramifications and the degree to which this problem can impact the lockdown. Through mobilisation and enforcement power remains strong, this limbo-like situation and debacle exposes how deep and entrenched poverty and destitution continue to have an adverse and manifold effect on the vulnerable, especially given India’s sheer population size.

Sadly, it appears that the lockdown represents a trade-off that the government seems to be willing to make when it comes to the protection of worker’s rights and health for the greater agenda of containing the spread of the virus and social distancing. Yet, this hasty decision proved to be blatantly exclusionary as the snowballing effects can destabilise and impair infrastructure further as cities become further choked with workers, particularly in states with a large migrant worker population such as Kerala and Maharashtra. 

Though there has been a lot of coverage on this subject, are we still overlooking one of the largest and most vulnerable groups in the country? 

For Some, It’s A Double-Edged Sword 

The struggles of migrant workers, once again, reveal a deeply rooted intersectional problem of the conflict, particularly bringing to light deeply rooted issues like xenophobia. A lot of the migrant workers also faced the threat of xenophobia as many are treated like ‘outsiders.’ In light of the rampant racism and discrimination, this period has also unravelled the pointed racism and discrimination that North-Eastern Indians have faced as well.

For instance, women from North-Eastern states have faced widespread discrimination and have been victims of harassment in recent days. They have been attacked with racial slurs and targeted for supposedly ‘spreading the virus.’ Moreover, female migrant workers have also continued to bear the brunt of the aftermath of this conflict and are unable to get essential supplies such as menstrual hygiene products. In addition, many female daily wage labourers, as well as women in the agricultural workforce in the country, are already suffering as they have lost their jobs and daily pay. 

Moreover, female migrant workers have also continued to bear the brunt of the aftermath of this conflict and are unable to get essential supplies such as menstrual hygiene products. In addition, many female daily wage labourers, as well as women in the agricultural workforce in the country, are already suffering as they have lost their jobs and daily pay. 

NGOs to the Rescue 

With the country on lockdown, vulnerable migrants don’t fear the virus but fear hunger and poverty. Naturally, with the awareness about this topic, many nonprofits and other organisations are trying to address some of the immediate struggles of the workers by setting up crowdfunding initiatives, in particular. Many charities are reporting that many helplines for stranded migrant workers usually receive calls for food and sustenance.

Many soup kitchens have been informally set up in many Indian cities to better accommodate migrant workers and feed them, however, this has only been initiated in a handful of states and its access is quite limited due to the restrictions on movement. Many community kitchens, though have also been stirring and moving sights of human solidarity and support as many pitch into help serve meals to the poor during the lockdown. 

Image Source: Goonj

Furthermore, Homefoodi is taking up the initiative of delivery home-cooked meals to migrants stranded at the Ghazipur border. In addition nonprofits like Safa, a Hyderabad-based nonprofit is utilising its community-inspired model to deliver essential supplies to single mothers and migrant workers, while organisations like Goonj are distributing dry rations and personal care products to areas with a higher concentration of migrant labour as well as address some of the other long-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Also read: Lock-Ups & Lock-Downs: Reflections On Indian Prison System During Covid-19

An Effective Government Response?

During her announcement last week, the Indian Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, proposed an economic package Nirmala Sitharaman and an economic relief package that specifically mitigates the economic impacts suffered by the migrant workers. Under the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojna amounting to Rs 1.7 trillion will be distributed to women, migrant workers and other vulnerable groups. 

However, the effectiveness and success of this policy is by no means clear at this point in time. Many believe that this is far from sufficient and the alleviating the problem may require nearly two or three times that amount. Pressures in the food, farming and agricultural sectors also need to be considered during the lockdown and address some of the larger issues at stake for the population such as food security. 

This lockdown has not only revealed some of the stark realities about inequality and privilege in India, but it has also proven to be a rather grim representation of how vulnerable and minority groups in society are treated during times of crisis and national emergency. While the wealthy and affluent are able to socially distance and do their part in containing the virus, the poor are crowding and are a quivering and restless sea of human suffering, helplessness and fear during this crisis. 

Also read: Covid-19 And Multiple Racist Attacks Against North-East Indians

With the fate of this mass group of individuals now hanging by a thread, at what point will our governments recognise and prioritise their needs with genuine concern and urgency without single-mindedly catering to the wealthy and elite? That is a choice they have to make before its too late.


Featured Image Source: Al Jazeera

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