The migrant crisis in India’s coronavirus lockdown has a political angle, and it is exposing state leaders and the lack of crisis management skills of the Narendra Modi government like never before.
Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have started the exercise of bringing their people back home, but states like Bihar and West Bengal, which have lakhs of its population stranded across India, are still undecided.
While Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray are keen to send the migrants out, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar has constantly pushed back, saying that it would be a violation of the lockdown. And while Mamata Banerjee in Bengal has allowed intra-state migration, the state has asked those stranded outside the state to stay put.
We can talk all we want about religion, media and journalists who are close to snapping their veins while shouting in their studios in the Covid-19 primetimes. But the elephant in the room is this: there are extremely poor people – migrant and unskilled labourers from the informal sector who are trying to reach their homes for the past one month now, ever since the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It has taken the Modi government more than a month and countless miseries for the migrants, both labourers and students, to say that it has no problem if states mutually decide among themselves to send and receive migrants.
Home’s not welcoming
Reports suggest that Nitish Kumar is playing a calculated move. He believes that the return of migrants will put Bihar in a difficult position as far as handling the health crisis is concerned, especially considering the states’ poor health infrastructure. So he wants to play strict now to avoid a problem later.
While West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has promised some monetary support to its migrants stranded outside the state, she has by and large, kept mum on the issue of bringing them back.
One of the main reasons why Mamata Banerjee is weary of inter-state migrant movement is because she fears whether those migrating are genuine citizens of West Bengal or Bangladeshis crossing over the porous Indo-Bangla border areas that lack fencing. Probably that is why Banerjee has started Sneher Prakash, an online scheme to give Rs 1000 as pocket money to labourers of West Bengal stranded in other states so that they stay wherever they are.
The repercussions of the delay by the Centre and states to reach a consensus on migrant crisis was most evident in Mumbai and Surat, which have witnessed huge protests by the outsiders. While the union home ministry asked the states to stop mass exodus of migrants and arrange shelters and essential commodities for them, Maharashtra tourism minister Aaditya Thackeray went on to say that “The current situation at Bandra Station, now dispersed or even the rioting in Surat is a result of the Union Govt not being able to take a call on arranging a way back home for migrant labour. They don’t want food or shelter, they want to go back home.”
The migrant problem in Mumbai precipitated into a mud-slinging match between the BJP and Shiv Sena where the former accused the latter of failing to fight the coronavirus pandemic and not have “any intelligence about the assembly of these workers” outside the Bandra station.
It is easy for those in power, sitting in the comfort of their ‘quarantined’ homes and secured offices to say that these people should stay put wherever they are. With this holier than thou attitude they can rake up the whole idea of nationalism and how the migrants should think about the larger good of the country and its people, even if it means the latter suffer badly.
Some call the migrants impatient, others say they are stupid and there are a few who go as far as to call them selfish. Those who feel bad for them clear their conscience by giving them food and water, but the insensitive expect them to be comfortable in night shelters that the government is providing.
Would you stay away from home, in shanties or rain baseras (night shelters), when the imminent threat of a contagious virus is hanging like a sword over your head? No. You too would also want to go home, even if it means dying in the process. At least, one would die in peace.
Besides the financial toll, many are failing to see the psychological and mental breakdown the poor are going through during these times. Food and water is not the only answer to their problems. 24-year-old Vivek Sharma from Morena(Madhya Pradesh), a sculptor residing in Gujarat who was homesick and in depression for not being able to go home chopped off his tongue at a temple in Gujarat’s Nadeshwari Mataji Temple at Nadeshwari village in Banaskantha.
What the numbers tell?
Estimates using the 2011 census and 2007-08 National Survey Sample reveal that the inter-state migrant population comprises 60 million and inter-district migration 80 million between the year 2001 and 2011. Estimates of internal work-related migration for 2011-2016 shows that 9 million people move between states. Add to this, the number of students that go to other states for education and you get a significant population in every state that has people who want to go home.
The major migrant hotspots today are Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat where a large number of migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh are stationed. Another migrant labour rich state is West Bengal where a large number of migrants from the neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Odisha reside.
But West Bengal has handled the intra-state migration well. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced West Bengal’s lockdown two days ahead of the nationwide lockdown on 22 March. Migrants living in West Bengal or those belonging to West Bengal and living in other states decided to go home while the railways was still operational.
This is not to say that West Bengal doesn’t have a mass migrant exodus problem, especially if you see visuals from the Howrah station.
UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath is also making arrangements now to allow inter-district migrants to travel from one district to another to go home after they’ve finished their quarantine period of 14 days in government screening centres.
States can’t stop them for long
The decision that some of the state governments are taking now to co-ordinate among themselves and bring back the migrants is much delayed and a lot of damage has already been done. This should’ve been done prior to the lockdown announcement on 24 March or in batches, district and state-wise, in an organised manner.
With speculations rife that the lockdown will extend further, it is not only insensitive to keep migrant labours in make shift shelters but also dangerous since India cannot afford protests. In fact there will be no stopping to the exodus.
There has been a panic migration from Dharavi of over 10,000 people who belong to Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. They are scared of residing in Dharavi as the possibility of physical distancing there is close to impossible. They’re doing so inspite of a strict lockdown imposed in Maharashtra. In fact, Tirunelveli collector Shilpa Prabhakar Satish has deployed a testing unit and quarantine centre near the border of Tirunelveli-Thoothukudi district at the national highway to test and quarantine those coming in because there’s no stopping them.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.