Like in many metros of India, there have been protests by migrant workers in Surat too. They want to go home, but are not being allowed because of the lockdown. The lockdown is for their own safety and for that of the 1.35 billion Indians.
Movement of people is a big factor in the spread of the deadly Covid-19 disease. The lockdown in India has actively sought to prevent movement of people to flatten the curve.
It is not every day that a pandemic strikes. And when it does, there are no easy choices. The lockdown has no doubt meant a lot of hardship for migrant labourers across India. As a migrant hub, Surat is witnessing unfortunate hardships being faced by the migrant labourers.
Restricted movement across states due to the lockdown has led to increasing anger, anxiety and restlessness within the migrant worker population, resulting in impetuous protests across the nation. The gathering of the migrant labourers near the Bandra railway station in Mumbai being the most prominent one.
However, the protests in Surat have been exaggerated and blown out of proportion by the national media, which has overstated its size and severity.
City of migrants
There are few urban centres like Surat in India. The city has an overwhelming majority of migrants and is a microcosm of modern India, arguably even more than Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru.
There’s probably no district in Gujarat from where people haven’t migrated to Surat for work. Surat also has migrants from at least 21 states from across India: nearly 2.5 lakh people from Orissa, about 10 lakh from the Saurashtra region, 3 lakh from UP, around 2 lakh from Bihar and Jharkhand, 1 lakh from Rajasthan and about 50,000 from Telangana, and West Bengal. These workers are employed mostly in activities like textile manufacturing, dyeing and printing, power loom, embroidery, cutting and packing of cloth, construction, diamond cutting and polishing, among others. Owing to the sudden nationwide lockdown imposed from 25 March, all industries and factories had to be shut. With the extension of the lockdown, industries have been closed for nearly a month now.
As a result, lakhs of workers are in fear of losing jobs, their savings depleting rapidly. These daily-wage workers live in constant fear of contracting the coronavirus, far away from the family support systems available in their hometowns. Facing persistent hunger due to an inadequate supply of food, they have grown anxious about the situation and have demanded to be allowed to return to their hometowns.
While other cities have had migrant workers gathering in thousands, demanding to be allowed to return to their hometowns, the situation in Surat has mostly remained calm despite the presence of a large and diverse migrant population. That’s when you realise that a potential tinderbox has been contained.
The protests could have been much bigger, violent and gone out of hand. That has not happened because the Surat administration and the local political leadership have done a commendable job in allaying the fears of migrants by helping them in whatever ways possible.
The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) adopted a Triple T strategy — Track, Test and Treat — to control the spread of the virus in the city. Considering a creaking health infrastructure and widespread panic surrounding the virus, the efforts of the SMC in controlling the pandemic have been exemplary.
Civil society and local NGOs have played a major role in bringing normalcy to the city by tirelessly serving the needy and hungry. NGOs like Akshay Patra and other charitable institutions working with the SMC have been providing food to almost 10 lakh people every day. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and city-based NGO Chhaydo have provided food to over one lakh people every day and dry ration kits to thousands of families.
Chhaydo is also running small polyclinics across the city in many areas where migrant workers are located.
The Modi government has also played an important role in effectively controlling the situation of the protests by doling out food grains and essential goods on one hand, and strictly enforcing lockdown rules on the other.
Surat rises to the occasion
As the vice president of the Surat BJP, I have been personally involved in the relief efforts. With every passing day, I have seen new challenges and new solutions.
The major issue in the initial stages of the lockdown was management of food supply and organisation of the food distribution system in 30 major clusters of the city.
Visiting these residential areas of migrant workers, I found that dry ration was of little use to around 40 per cent of the workers as they lived without families and without kitchens. They were largely dependent on local messes and canteens for their meals, which were shut on account of the lockdown.
We flagged this problem to the district administration and the state government. The government thus took the decision to restart these facilities. Implementing the decision was not easy. There was paucity of food grains for the messes and canteens. The district administration worked with the state government to make sure food grains reached these establishments.
Moreover, Surat being a textile hub, augmented the production of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and masks in the city to the help from the state government. This underlying entrepreneurial ethos of the city is what it’s known for.
The key in making such efforts successful is that local BJP workers have had the trust of migrants, and we have been doing everything possible in a difficult time to keep their trust.
The phenomenal response to this crisis is a moment of pride for the city of Surat, which through its indomitable spirit, has risen to the occasion of fighting against this unprecedented challenge in every way possible.
P.V.S. Sarma is vice president, Bharatiya Janata Party, Surat. Views are personal.