I die many times every day, in lanes and bylanes, in streets and on highways, on railway tracks at nightfall and dusty tracks by daylight. I die because my employers have sacked me, my governments have abandoned me, the courts refuse to intervene and don’t even see us, invisible that we are as we die by night or day. We are the nowhere people with homes far away, and which we left to support our families, to build your homes and mansions as we live in hovels without running water or toilets. And now, we go home again.
I heard their lordships, the wise men who are supposed to uphold our rights, assure us of justice and show empathy, that they can’t do anything about people walking. But we are not walking in the streets and the highways for pleasure. We are walking because we are the walking dead, we are the homeless migrants, we are the faceless 45 crore Indians who live away from home, according to the Census of 2011. Or you didn’t know that? I wonder if the government did. If it didn’t, it would explain the daily ad hoc, confused, changing signals and statements and policies that it is putting out.
Granted this is a pandemic. Nothing could have prepared us to deal with us, not least the government, I agree. But couldn’t the leaders at least have consulted each other — the Centre and the states, before the event, and not after? Good planning comes from consultation and dialogue with partners and teams. Not efforts to go it alone in a monumental country as ours with vast complexities. There were 45 crore internal migrants in India in 2011. That figure could be much higher now. Not all of us fit the category that the media and many others are broad-brushing us with — migrant workers or migrant labour. We’re students and teachers, workers and employers, contractors and sub-contractors, we travel for business, for love, for marriage — without love. Every third Indian, at least, is a migrant.
We face lathis and barricades, we are chased by people in and out of uniform, we’re packed into trucks and cement dumpers because we know that we should not be walking home. Not according to the lockdown, for which, like everyone else, we were given four hours of sudden notice. These things should not happen in democracies. We didn’t have a chance, your lordships. We had no idea about this enemy except that there were no weapons against it and we did not want to die away from home.
There were no buses, no trains, we don’t travel on planes. That’s why we’re walking with children sleeping on our backs or shoulders or pets in arms or wives carrying jholas with a little food while the men take the head-loads. Try doing that for five days, with maybe one meal a day and little water in 40°C.
If we were being paid full wages, do you think we would have left in trucks, trailers or any other vehicle that would take us; our employers had thrown us out. I haven’t been paid for two months, my family depends on me to feed and support them. That’s why we rushed to bus stations and railway platforms in desperate efforts to go home. For, home is where our fortunes are. It may not be the source of our livelihoods. But it is where many of us feel safe, comforted, with a roof over our heads and a cot to lie on, a small meal to share with our own.
You are a protector of the Constitution, we understand. That is a living entity. If so, then it must breathe oxygen, it must bleed blood, when wounded. Have you seen our walked feet, you lordships? They are blistered, swollen and torn, our lips are parched, our stomachs are empty and our hearts are heavy and minds are dulled, with pain and hopelessness.
You say we should not be sleeping on the railway tracks. That’s right — but no trains were moving, we heard that in announcements; nobody told us that goods trains and relief trains were plying. We should have been on the latter, perhaps, and then we would have lived. We were walking by the tracks because the roads are patrolled by the policemen with lathis and galis. We did not want to suffer more humiliation. That’s why we chose to sleep on the railway track. And that’s why we died.
You were to be the oversight, the constitutional rein and restraint for all governments, be it in Delhi, UP or Gujarat, in MP or Rajasthan, in Odisha or West Bengal. That hasn’t happened. There is no Parliament or state Assembly to ask questions. Some media are doing their best, but they’re overwhelmed by a babble of frothing anchors spewing fake news, hate and propaganda. I wonder if the latter even know what journalism is, let alone news. Events are as they happen, not what leaders and anchors want to happen.
Where is this achhe din that we hear of? A sapna has turned into a nightmare. So, I die, far from home and loved ones — my food runs out, the water dries up, my torn purse is empty. I spent the last of the money to pay the trucker or was it his malik or the contractor I paid? Things are getting a bit hazy and dark as I think, lines and lives are blurred, memory fades. Does it matter if I was hit by a truck or a car or a train as I walked, stopped, slept or cycled?
The iron man of India has a great statue to honour him. We are the unsung iron men and women of India, for we have built this nation through our silent sacrifices, our blood, sweat, torn hands and feet, deaths and lives, our tears and broken aching limbs. How will we be remembered? As the nowhere people, walking long, deadly journeys home and whom you can’t stop walking?
All of you — you’ve let us down.
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