On the evening of March 21, an unexpected rocket zoomed over India and targeted the whole country. To many, it seemed unprovoked but later on, the invisible enemy was revealed as Covid-19. Soon, the whole country went into a war-like blackout, only this was called a lockdown. As a result, industries were shut down, transport went off the roads, trains were stopped in their tracks and airlines were grounded. All educational institutions were closed, people were confined to their homes — in short, it was a complete cessation of all activity, except in hospitals.
Only a four-hour intimation and the country went into an induced coma. As in Delhi’s actions before demonetisation, this also caused total disruption. Of course, thinking after the event, hundreds of orders were issued to mitigate the problems of the people. It was an event which could have been announced earlier with even a four-day notice without any damage occurring. This would have given the people time to prepare, and the various services time to scale down their operations in an orderly way. Industry would have talked to its workers and tried to find some modus operandi for the period of the lockdown, railway and other transport systems could have ferried those who needed to go somewhere, teachers could have discussed with parents the alternate arrangements to be made and so on. Unlike some western countries, the Government of India did not help industries with funds to pay workers.
Although everyone had a problem, there was a segment of people who were left to completely fend for themselves — the migrants from the rural areas who had come to the cities and towns in search of work. ‘Migrants’ — it is not understood as to why they are called so. They are also citizens of India although they have come from Bharat. Lakhs of these migrants had managed to find jobs in industries, construction activity, roads development, mandis and even in the private confines of our homes. They became almost indispensable. As the locals did not like the work on farms in some states, the migrants took over the work of farming activities and enjoyed a healthy relationship with each other. However, acceptance in the workforce did not lead to acceptance at the social level; this distance remained and the new shanty towns appeared having their own social norms. However, there was no hostility in the relationship but in one fell stroke, the harmony was destroyed. The lockdown, the curfew were very strictly enforced and monitored. The employer and employee both became unemployed. The migrants were especially hard hit as they had no backup to fall on. They tried to stay on in their shanty towns but were out of money and food. As industry had shut down, the industrialists, big and small, were not in a position to pay the employees. Even in households, the fear of the virus was so strong that all household staff were laid off. The households became aware of the shanty towns that the help came from and so had to dispense with their services.
With the order of the lockdown, they were back in their hovels. So, no job, no food, no rental money, no school for children. Hence, they took the only decision left open to them — to go back to Bharat. Back to the village, hundreds and thousands of miles away, as they were no longer needed since their very presence would spread the pestilence. The question arose: how to go back to Bharat? No trains, no buses, no mode of transport whatsoever. Hence began the long march, but it was not a march towards revolution, it was a retreat. A disorganised retreat from the social and economic revolution that they had come seeking in India. All appeals for trains, buses, etc, fell on deaf ears. They could not stay on and even their own states did not want them back. So the march went on, on foot and bicycles. Food and water were scarce on the way. There were no government camps, no workers of political parties of the left or the right. Where were the Rotarians, the Lions and the various other NGOs? Where were the people of the towns they were passing through? There was only an eerie silence. On they went, an unending stream of humanity. Yes, they were human beings still, although bereft of human dignity, deprived of their right to food, shelter and movement. When the stories began to get publicity in some pockets of the still untamed media, the word went out to the provincial Subedars to stop these marches wherever they were. This led to restrictions on the roads and in some towns where they were still present. The voices grew louder and coalesced into one demand: ‘send us home’. They no longer wanted to stay in India even if their destiny was death — they would rather die in their village homes. Of course, many died on the roads, also in overloaded vehicles.
The noise was getting louder and the warlords took one step back to allow trains and buses to ferry these people to the states. But, who would pay for it: states, Centre, political parties or they themselves? In this tug of war, it is not clear who paid, but there were many claimants for having done this.
In the meantime, a two-month silence was observed by the authorities in Delhi and the states. The Indian State did not want them and their own state governments did not want them. The fear of pestilence, the fear of the hungry unwashed bodies, the fear of their touch, the fare of their rehabilitation.
One concession was made to them that they could avail of MNREGA. So there they are back with the shovels in their hands and digging away — the Indian dreams forgotten, the harsh reality upon them. Many tranches announced — nothing for the landless and the migrants. How had they dared to dream — from Bharat to India is a long distance, which will grow longer as their children will have no chance of exposure to education or technology. The bond between India and Bharat which they tried to forge is a forgotten dream for the present. It will have to begin all over again. The social and economic contract, the employee-employer contract will have to be reworked.
The economic and social renewal of Bharat and India is a huge multi-layered project and it cannot be done through kneejerk reactions and piecemeal doles. A whole new strategy has to be evolved which would include new ideas for education, health, industry, traders, transport, airlines. This strategy has to be drawn up by experts from all domains and not from the ruling party only. The employees and migrants should be involved and the ultimate debate and decisions should take place in Parliament. Every effort has to be made to economically and socially uplift Bharat so that the gulf is bridged and not increased further. We are a democracy and we should be an inclusive democracy, thinking and planning for the good of all. All of us are a part of this democracy and the leadership should take us into confidence on all such important matters which affect our lives and our livelihoods. Bharat and India cannot be a democracy of great inequalities, they have to be equal partners. As our founding fathers wrote, ’For India that is Bharat’.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC & former Manipur Governor
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