“The world’s biggest lockdown has forced migrants to walk hundreds of miles home”,
“Desperate migrant workers trapped in lockdown”,
“The Pandemic Exposes India’s Apathy Toward Migrant Workers”,
These are some of the headlines of leading international newspapers exposing the suffering of migrants in India and the lack of concern on the part of authorities. From migration to hunger, from being expelled by landlords to being beaten by police, from dying in a truck accident to being crushed by a train, this pandemic has unveiled the plight and issues that the poor face in this 21st century India.
The Modi government, along with the ruling BJP party has been boastful of India being a “Global Superpower” ever since they came to power. But, is this just their imagination? No superpower would let lakhs of migrant workers walk hundreds of miles back to their villages. No concrete steps have been taken by the government to address this issue. In fact, in a hearing, the Solicitor General on behalf of the Government told the Supreme Court that “no migrant workers are on road”, which clearly exhibit the Centre’s “look away” stance as far as the migrant workers’ issue is concerned.
As per 2011 census, the total number of internal migrants in India is 45.36 crore, that is 37% of the country’s population. Professor Amitabh Kundu from the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, whose estimates are based on 2011 census and the economic survey, has estimated that there are more than 65 million inter-state migrants. Another 12 to 18 million people include street vendors and other vulnerable communities. All of them are now at a risk of losing their livelihood.
Many of them migrated from less fortunate states to cities in search for work as their parent states are not in a position to provide them with a means of livelihood, particularly due to lack of vision as far as employment opportunities are concerned. Other factors include underdevelopment, poverty and low agricultural productivity. After a certain period, these migrants bring their relatives and friends along with them.
Owing to the fact that this sector is highly exploitative, the labourers are paid much below the minimum wage rate. A majority of them earn just Rs 200-400 a day. The government, through its economic package, has tried to alleviate the plight of these migrants but a large number of labourers are excluded from this relief. In fact, a majority of them are unaware of these schemes and how to access them. Many of them are with no food supplies while others are living with quickly depleting ration.
The sudden lockdown has left migrants gasping for support. Already hit with job loss and food shortage, being expelled by the landlords arrived as a triple whammy for them. With no work, nothing to eat, nowhere to live, these migrant workers have no other option than to return to their villages and native towns. With little or no help from the ‘pro-poor’ Government, they walked hundreds of miles, many of them barefoot, under the scorching sun.
Being compared to the great migration of the 1947 partition, this migrant exodus was destined to be covered by national and international media on a large scale. The poverty that the Centre wanted to hide by erecting those walls before the Namaste Trump event in Gujarat has been thrown open to the world by this pandemic, that too, at an unprecedented level.
This migrant workers issue has put a question mark on the superpower bubble created by the politicians. Though the whole planet is busy addressing the spread of this pandemic, no other country has suffered an internal migration problem at such a large scale, which says a lot about the government’s lack of preparedness and outright failure to address this issue.