Just hours after PM Narendra Modi’s address to the nation about the extension of the lockdown till May 3, over 2,000 migrant labourers came out in Mumbai and their demand was to return home. The word ‘home’ has suddenly become one of the most important words during the COVID-19 outbreak. ‘Stay at home’, ‘work from home’, ‘home quarantine’, and ‘I want to go back to my home’. All these uses show different privileges related to the word home.
The Oxford dictionary meaning of the word Home is: [countable, uncountable] the house or flat that you live in, especially with your family.
In the Bollywood movie Jonny LLB, in a case related to the footpath dwellers actor Arshad Warsi said, “Kaun hay eay log, Kanha se aate hay?” (Who are these people, from where do they come from). The migrant labourers in Indian cities are a reality which everybody knows but hardly felt any necessity to deal with. But now, after the nationwide lockdown, these migrant labourers have taken to the streets and forced all of us to think about them.
After the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown in India, around 200 people have lost their lives due to the lockdown. At this point for India undoubtedly the most important challenge is to fight the virus and to save the nation, but it is not to forget that the crisis related to the migrant labourers is likely to become the most predominant crisis in the post lockdown time in India.
An article in The Atlantic The Pandemic Exposes India’s Apathy Toward Migrant Workers noted, “Migrant labourers are among the most vulnerable parts of the “informal sector,” which make up 80% of India’s workforce. The country’s infrastructure is built on the backs of these workers. They construct malls, multiplexes, hospitals, apartment blocks, hotels. They work as factory hands, delivery boys, loaders, cooks, painters, rickshaw pullers. They stand the whole day by the side of the road selling fruits and vegetables and tea and flowers.”
Undoubtedly it is an economic crisis, but to deal with this, India needs a political solution.
Announcing packages for these vulnerable labourers are also important, but it is to be noted that most of these people have no access to the banks and the technology-based banking system. It will be very wrong to believe that all of these labourers have a bank account or even if they have, it will be more wrong to believe that they have smooth access to these accounts.
A political solution will start with accepting that this pandemic has devastated the lives of these migrant labourers, so Twitter appeals and media appeals will not work on the ground. Providing food and ration is a temporary solution but what is important for the state governments and the centre is to come together and formulate a detailed plan to reach out to these people. Right now what they need is the support and the confidence that the government will look after them. Everyone knows how they are being treated by the government. So pretending to be empathetic is the last thing they deserve.
When the lockdown goes, the first thing these marginalised people will do is to go back home, and not overnight they will start working because they are scared. The political solution will require empathy towards their fear. We have to accept their fear and address them.
Amid this crisis, India stood together and fought the battle. In the coming days, the priority should be addressing the concerns of the migrant labourers. Tough times are the times when as a nation we can do much more what we do regularly. The political solution is the best solution to such a crisis followed by economic solutions. But to bring an economic solution the political will be mandatory and empathy will be needed.