“Which logical person sleeps on a railway track?” read a tweet as the story of the migrants who lost their lives in Aurangabad unfolded. A goods train had run over and killed 16 migrants and injured 1 near Aurangabad, Maharashtra on the night on May 8. The migrants were travelling from Jalna to their native place in Madhya Pradesh, over a distance of at least 230 kilometres.
The tweet was not an isolated voice; it was a part of a shocking series of questions raised on the ‘logical thinking’ abilities of poor migrants whose only fault was that they longed for their homes. This was happening at the same time when another report on India’s expatriation project, Mission Vande Bharat, was taking place. A flight had left from Delhi to Singapore with 14 passengers. Once you juxtapose the two events, it reveals a harsh reality, one that many of us are not ready to accept: we have once again failed the poor.
The Coronavirus lockdown in India has been a mismanaged mess across the country. With the nation under lockdown for more than 50 days, the situation shows no signs of improvement. The government has failed to implement an effectively planned lockdown. As much as I want to focus on the government’s limited efforts, this article is about a larger problem that grapples us, as humans.
As someone in the social sciences, I am not new to the concept of empathy. We practice it as an emotive ability but it is also a concept that students of psychology often deconstruct. In simpler terms, empathy is an ability to understand someone else’s situation; to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Susan Langoni’s article in the Atlantic gave me a better perspective to understand the concept in two primary ways. While one is to understand the complexities involved in someone else’s situation and generate compassion, the other considers it to be a “blinding emotion that precludes rational thinking.”
Is it not rational thinking, in this particular case, to ask why are so many migrants walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their native places? Did the government not consider daily wage workers and the potential effects of a lockdown on them? Why do we always forget to hold the relevant authorities accountable?
The attempts to shift the blame on the migrants does not change the fact that the ones in authority have neglected their duty towards the lower strata of society. This is exactly the time when emotive abilities like empathy can improve decision-making on a bureaucratic level. It is easy to give unsolicited lectures on logical thinking when one does not have to face the harsher impacts of an economic lockdown.
The ones who lost their lives did not have smartphones with GPS and high-speed data to get easy updates on the situation every minute. Later, journalist Parth MN reported his conversation with the PSI at the Karmad police station, who informed him that the migrants had been walking since 7 PM and thought the trains are not functioning.
A PSI at Aurangabad's Karmad police station tells me the migrant workers crushed on the railway track belonged to MP. They worked in Jalna, and were going back home.
The train crushed them in their sleep. 16 are dead. 1 injured. 3 safe.
— Parth MN (@parthpunter) May 8, 2020
The PSI also mentioned that the group decided “to take a break and unintentionally fell asleep.” The government, in a press conference, informed that over 2.5 lakh people have utilised the 222 Shramik trains. But, a rational question from an empathetic point of view has to be asked: 2.5 lakhs out of how many?
Railways has run 222 Shramik Special Trains for movement of stranded persons, more than 2.5 lakh people have made use of this facility so far: Punya Salila Srivastava, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/M8JF8y5LwD
— ANI (@ANI) May 8, 2020
Moreover, there are more issues around the same scheme including ticket charges, lack of cooperation between states and insufficient arrangement which have been conveniently overlooked. Are they not logical points to scrutinise?
As citizens, there is not much we can do besides contributing to relief funds and supporting grassroots initiatives helping those at the margins. But amidst the publicity gambles, we are losing a significant aspect of ours. We are a nation that takes pride in the fact that foreigners visit us to discover themselves, to learn the importance of empathy. But in current times, we seemed to have forgotten that quality ourselves.