Shorts In The Dark

Spare a thought for migrants

It's difficult to choose a story of suffering to highlight, each being more horrific than the other.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  4-minute read |   17-05-2020
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Their sweat and blood built this nation; what we gave them in return was tears. As the human tragedy of migrant labour continues to spill over onto our streets and railway tracks, it's difficult to choose a story of suffering to highlight, each being more horrific than the other. Should one talk about the couple trudging on the beaten path, under a sweltering May sun, wheeling a suitcase on which their toddler catches some shut-eye? Should one talk about those who were following the new lodestar - the railway track-home, fell asleep exhausted and never woke up, their dreams and bodies turned to bloody mincemeat under the wheels of a goods train. Should one instead talk about the autorickshaw driver trying to drive his family home all the way from Mumbai to U.P., who'd almost made it but had an accident on the last stretch that took the life of his wife and child.

Fleeting empathy

There are so many others: The 25-year old transporting migrant labour for a fee of `3,000, who fell asleep at the wheel and rammed his truck into a stationary vehicle, dying in the process and killing his passengers. And we all remember pictures of men being pulled out of a cement mixer like bedraggled rats, all just trying to make their way home. The country's conscience has been shaken, then again it has not. Our middle class's capacity for empathy is more like a trickle of blood passing through a clogged artery. It's about putting a stone on your heart rather than letting it bleed. Because the underpaid malnourished poor are seen, to a large extent, as being responsible for their lot; they exist to make the middle class feel superior about their privileged selves. This was an avoidable tragedy. To understand its source we have to return to that fateful day when the shock lockdown was announced, and Indians given only four hours to sort their future out. We were told that rumours of a lockdown are false, that it was merely going to be a voluntary trial-run of a day-long janta curfew, which was then seamlessly extended. The ostensible reason behind this was to avoid panic and crowding; what it led to is Indians walking the streets like ants.

A national crisis

This truly is a national crisis: the labour comes from all parts of India, from all castes, gender and religion. In the camps where they were interred, the labour was treated badly. The reports coming in are horrific: one bar of soap for several people, queues for ration where people stood for hours without luck and fell to the ground dehydrated. In interview after interview, migrant labourers have spoken about the loss of dignity, of how they care about their lives more than anyone else. The refrain was: We too would like to maintain social distancing, which we would have managed at home. Instead they were packed into cubby holes, ten to a room. Often surviving on one meal a day, they now return home, their resistance and immunity weakened. The sanitary conditions left much to be desired. When they came out to protest in Surat, they were beaten back by the police; some suffered fractures in the process. In fact, the exercise of sending them back started because the unrest was becoming unmanageable. As if this wasn't enough, the 'big bang reforms' in labour laws means that workers are now completely at the mercy of their masters with little by way of safety net. In places like Karnataka, the builder lobby, worried about its business, tried to prevent the flight of migrants. These workers are free citizens of India, not bonded labour. The refrain from migrant workers has been that hunger will get us before the virus does, that they want ration, not 'bhashan'. Those who've made it home fell to the earth, kissed the platform with tears in their eyes and vowed not to return in a hurry. To rub salt into their wounds they were asked to pay for their tickets.

Precious lives lost

This mess forces us to ask not tough but simple questions: Is it time that this government dilutes its standard approach of taking hard decisions and dealing with the consequences later, when it's too late and lives have been lost. Yes, the citizen has to suffer in the process of nation-building but to what extent and what price? Why weren't the vast resources of the Indian State, lying idle, not deployed earlier? What explains the reluctance to use the Indian army, the paramilitary forces, the railways, the Indian Air Force? The army apparently has 3,000 buses stationed in Delhi alone. Millions of India's citizens have been scarred by what they've had to suffer. Thousands are still cycling home on expensive new bicycles bought with borrowed money, pregnant wives riding pillion. Ghostly trucks are still plying with human contraband in their bellies. One thing is clear, that the scarred are not going to forget and forgive in a hurry those who gave them these scars in the first place.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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