A future historian might call this the great hostage drama. The Narendra Modi government’s actions vis-à-vis the migrant workers during the Covid-19 lockdown now leave no room for confusion. This is not about containing the coronavirus infection. This is not even about saving the government some relief package. This is about keeping workers hostage.
Our response to the plight of the migrant worker brings out all that is rotten in today’s India: obscene class inequalities, loss of society’s moral compass, paralysis of politics, and toxic media. Looking at our response, our future historian would wonder if we were reacting to some humanitarian crisis in far-away Nigeria. She might call it a democratic version of the system of indentured labour.
Facts speak for themselves. The lockdown has led to sudden job loss for more than 12 crore persons. Of these, more than four crore could be migrant labourers. A survey based on calls to a helpline number run by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) gives us a glimpse into their condition. As many as 78 per cent of them have not been paid any salary for the lockdown period. Eighty two per cent have not received any ration from the government. And 64 per cent have less than Rs 100 left with them. Without a job, running out of their meagre savings and without hope for the future, these migrants workers want what anyone would wish in their position: to go back home. Apparently, more than one crore workers have registered to return to their homes.
How to ignore migrant workers
The story of the last six weeks is a study in how to keep the poor workers imprisoned without having to pay or feed them. The lockdown began with the Modi government pretending that migrant workers did not exist. There was not a word about them in the government’s original guidelines. They were noticed only when lakhs of them voted with their feet and started walking hundreds of kilometres.
Even this did not lead to any coherent policy response. The problem was managed by dispersing the crowds visible to cameras. Some of them were packed into buses, others were shoved into makeshift relief camps. Strict orders were issued not to allow anyone to travel anymore. They did not stop. Thousands, possibly lakhs, still continued to walk back, or cycle, or hitch-hike. But they were not TV headlines anymore. They did not matter.
The package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had nothing for this category, except an unworkable scheme for construction workers. The Centre refused to heed to repeated requests for providing ration to those without ration cards or to open community kitchens under the National Food Security Act. The buck was passed on to the state governments, that too on the condition that they would have to purchase food-grain from the Centre at market price. The idea of giving some cash allowance to the poor was not even heard.
Meanwhile, those who mattered were still being transported. Gujarati tourists stuck in Uttarakhand, Andhra pilgrims stranded in Varanasi, Punjabi pilgrims staying in Nanded, middle-class children studying in Kota, foreign citizens who needed to catch special flights, and of course, anyone related to a big or small VIP. They could be infected; indeed many of them turned out to be positive. But they were our citizens. All this was below the media radar and so was not a problem. Occasional reports of workers protest could be suppressed with the help of a friendly media.
No train home
Eventually, towards the end of the second lockdown, the rulers decided that something had to be done about it. Hence the decision to selectively run buses and quietly, almost secretively, start running trains. The news could not be suppressed. The workers saw a release and lined up to go back. Now the problem was how to control the flow. There is no way to pick a few from the crores who wish to travel back. So, there was a money filter, the cruelest way to keep the poor out.
The story about the Centre contributing 85 per cent of the fare was pure nonsense, a dodging device to keep media distracted for one day. The simple fact is that the Indian Railways has charged exactly its normal fare for sleeper class, plus Superfast surcharge and food charges. Thus a ticket from Vasai Road (Mumbai) to Gorakhpur (incidentally the ticket tweeted by BJP’s Sambit Patra) costs around Rs 660-680 in normal times. For Shramik Express, the Railway is charging Rs 740, as I explained earlier. So, it is charging more than its normal fare. The truth is that workers have had to pay these fares, often asking families to make a reverse transfer for this purpose. Those workers who could not pay did not board the trains. The ‘sending state’ government is responsible for collecting the fares from workers or paying it directly. The ‘home state’ can do the same, but very few states have offered it. In the last instance, the already impoverished workers have to pay the fares.
There is nothing normal about the Railways’ decision to charge ‘normal’ fare for special Shramik trains. Indian Railways has a history of humanitarian evacuation. As recently as 2015, Indian Railways ran free trains for the Nepalese in the aftermath of the earthquake. Running a thousand or more special trains is not a big deal for Indian Railways. Forgoing tickets worth a few hundred crore would not have burnt a big hole for the Railways that already offers substantial subsidies for passenger fares. There was a precedent for the railways to emulate. In the course of this pandemic, the government has chartered back Indian citizens living abroad, free of cost. The decision to charge migrant workers in distress was not just wanton cruelty of some administrator, or crass commercialism of a public sector corporation. It was a political decision not to allow cheap labour to escape when they might be needed by the industry.
If there is any doubt about it, the Ministry of Home Affairs clarified this in its letter. The letter basically says that Shramik trains are not for migrant workers. Only persons temporarily stranded away from home can use these. Workers can’t use it to go from their workplace back to their homes. Since the authorities are trying to keep the numbers as low as possible. There are reports from several states of local authorities ‘persuading’ the workers not to go back, without of course making any arrangement for their food or cash requirements. In Karnataka, the chief minister held a meeting with the leading real estate developers and suddenly decided to withdraw request for all the special trains. The migrant workers, the cheapest labour, are indeed the glorified indentured workers of our time.
The future historian might write this story of moral cussedness, political apathy and spin-doctoring where the state was inventing ways to keep workers hostage, where the central government was passing on the buck to state governments, where the opposition was busy in one-upmanship and when the ruling party used bizarre spin and disinformation to wriggle out. She might note that the facts of the case were so straightforward that you would have to make an effort to get confused. She might wonder whether you and I were willing to suspend disbelief, lest it disrupt our lockdown peace.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.