Trysts and Turns

Mere apology is not enough, they deserve more

Modiji’s intentions in declaring a lockdown were noble as well as necessary. Could his army of advisers not have anticipated this tragedy? A solution should be found to at least partly compensate for the hard times

Mere apology is not enough, they deserve more

Julio Ribeiro

Julio Ribeiro

He was only a boy, 14 or 15 years of age. On his back he carried his meagre belongings, just one change of clothes, perhaps two if he had earned enough to feed his fancy. It would surprise me if he did not possess a mobile phone! Every boy from UP or Bihar, MP or Rajasthan, who has come to the big cities as migrant labour, has to have a mobile to keep in touch with his family back home. That picture on TV will forever remain with me!

The boy was weeping! He had just been caned by exasperated policemen whose one and only concern was to keep citizens off the streets. The boy hailed from the same social background and the same economic bracket as the policeman (before the policeman was recruited in the force). But that thought, even if did arise, would not deter the policeman from using his lathi on the boy!

The thought process of a policeman would not cross the boundaries of the orders emanating from the very top. Modiji had requested every citizen to stay home. And at home he or she had to keep a social distance of 3 feet from other members of the family. The boy was not aware of Modiji’s diktat. He only knew that the coronavirus had thrown him and other migrant labourers on the road without any shelter and without the means to earn his daily wage, half of which he sent home to his impecunious parents and the other half which he spent on keeping himself alive!

For him and the other migrant labourers on the roads, egressing the city, it was Hobson’s choice. They stayed on the roads and starved to death or they walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages to the security of the family where blood ties provided love and sympathy, which human beings crave even if that does not put food in their bellies.

Such niceties are beyond the understanding of a policeman. If a sensitive police leader has failed to put such thoughts in his ears, emphasising instead the paramount duty of keeping citizens confined to their own homes to break corona’s cycle, he is going to wield his lathi on the backs and legs of the poor labourers faced by death from starvation or from the virus.

The picture of that boy crying after being assaulted for choosing not to die of starvation has forced Modiji to apologise to the migrant labourers, who for a pittance are the backbone of the construction industry, in particular. When Modiji advised us to stay indoors, we accepted his sage advice because like him we belong to the ranks of the haves and neither Modiji or his cohorts of advisers, nor we spared a thought for the unfortunate!

The boys from UP and Bihar who provide the essential domestic help to the feudal and the nouveau riche in the city of Mumbai brought the reactions of this segment of our population to my notice in a tone and tenor that made me flinch. Why did Modiji have to spring this lockdown on us in the same manner as he did when he demonetised the 1,000 and 500 rupee notes? I explained the reasons. Then, in that case, why did he order the police to beat the poor labourers? Again, I explained that Modiji had, obviously, forgotten that only ‘sahibs’ possessed flats where they and their families could make themselves comfortable for three weeks. I said I would not hold Modiji guilty on this count because I, too, with my genuine concern for the poor, had not factored in this obvious outcome of the suddenly announced lockout.

Incidentally, renovation of the exteriors of our society building was being done when the lockdown was announced. The boys staying on site were twiddling their thumbs. Some residents felt that they were a source of possible contamination and should be asked to leave. Wiser counsel prevailed and they were allowed to stay on till the contractor could move them to another of his sites not far away. The boys themselves wish to go home to Madhya Pradesh, but cannot.

Modiji’s intentions in declaring the lockdown were noble as well as necessary. Could his army of advisers not have anticipated this tragedy? Modiji had lost traction after the CAA and NRC was announced and the youth lost hope after the JNU incident. Now, the poor — who had propelled him to office because of the houses and toilets he built for them, the direct money transfers he organised to eliminate the middlemen and the village roads he got constructed — are shocked by the treatment meted out to their friends, who constitute the bulk of the migrant labour.

It is not enough to merely apologise to the wronged. The problem is not an easy one to solve, I admit. But, as I said, Modiji has a vast reservoir of thinking men and women at his disposal. He should be able to find a solution that will at least partly compensate for the hard times these poor men have faced consequent to the lockdown.

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