Free lunches won't keep the migrant worker from wanting to go home and start over
After the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic came our government's latest surgical strike, the lockdown. With no thought to how the poor, particularly workers in the unorganised sector, will survive, it ordered a nationwide shutdown. It was Partition redux. Scenes of countless newly homeless people walking hundreds of kilometres back to their native towns and villages filled the television screens. The walkers were stopped at numerous 'lakshman rekhas' they didn't know they were crossing. The government invoked the 2005 Disaster Management Act and the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act to stop them. Scores lost their lives to hunger, uncertainty and the toll the journey took on their weakened frames.
There are over 240 million unorganised sector workers in India. And close to two million homeless people. Our rulers didn't realise that their unpremeditated, unilateral action (a la demonetisation, reading down of Article 377, etc) would create an immediate crisis that was bigger than the virus itself. Nevertheless, the prime minister went ahead with his observance of a mini-Diwali, ostensibly to ward off the coronavirus, on April 5.
Fear of hunger and fear of famine — there was no one to harvest the standing rabi crop — loom upon us. For no fault of theirs, workers lost wages due to loss of work as well as to employer default. And after calling upon the government to make arrangements for disbursement of wages, the Supreme Court wondered this week why workers need their wages when they are being fed by the authorities.
The caste dynamic of the lockdown has come to the fore. Those dispossessed by it are mainly people who live by their labour, who are mostly drawn from marginalised castes and communities — Muslims, Dalits, adivasis, most backward classes. And use of the term 'social distancing' legitimises this marginalisation while deepening caste lines and renewing belief in Manu’s precept of untouchability. Brahminist elites seek to justify this process in the name of the corona threat.
Should the PM have been more careful in his choice of words, especially as the modifier term 'physical distancing', was already in the public domain? But he was happy simply tweeting yogic fitness mantras.
The national lockdown has left the elite and the affluent among 130 crore Indians shellshocked. Like the coronavirus, government has become invisible in many places. In only a handful of areas have state administrations tried their best to provide rations and shelter to migrants. The government’s earlier relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore has proved woefully inadequate and is hardly even remembered. One only hopes its new 'packages' do not produce the same results.
In ordering the lockdown to pre-empt the spread of the virus, the government was conscious of its poor health infrastructure, especially at the small town and rural level, where it is completely unequipped to handle a crisis should community transmission — the dreaded stage three of the disease — eventually happen. India invests only 1.15 per cent of its GDP in this sector while countries like the United Kingdom, which invests 9.6 per cent, and the United States, 18 per cent, are seen floundering.
But the poor are resilient. For them, death, disease and suffering have been a way of life. In fact they have taken their own pre-emptive measures. By going back home, they removed themselves from the vicinities of 15 lakh foreign returnees who had streamed into India during the 45 days preceding the lockdown. The state governments failed to screen, trace, test and treat foreign returnees. The kid-glove handling of those foreign returnees is a stark contrast to the Bareilly administration's inhuman treatment of migrant walkers.
The question is what proof was there that these migrant workers were carriers of the virus, as the police and state administrations loudly warned us? After screening about 1.8 lakh migrant workers, who are living either with their families or at 3,115 quarantine centres, the Bihar government is now heaving a sigh of relief that none of them has tested positive. Has the migrant worker beaten the virus then? We'll find out.
Meanwhile, what lessons can India and the government draw from this humbling experience? Let’s turn to expert advice. Economist and Nobel Prize-winner Abhijit Banerjee has recommended aggressive quantitative easing and generous direct benefit transfers to tackle what is to come in the days ahead. He and fellow economist Esther Duflo have both also, pertinently, warned that the lives versus livelihoods dilemma being presented before the nation by the intelligentsia and the government is a false one as loss of livelihood would automatically lead to greater coronavirus susceptibility. Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and the Congress Party too have favoured printing money and making cash transfers as an urgent measure to combat the looming recession.
Turning our attention back to the problems of migrant workers, all over India, in the big cities and state capitals too, it was seen that the poor were rejecting free lunches. To them, this was but an old feudal measure to purchase their soul. Instead, they hoped to be given just enough time to reach their homes, and perhaps some cash in hand to free them from the tension of earning a livelihood in the months ahead amid a crashing economy, which is in no way their fault. Cash that would give them leeway to plan ahead, and maybe, just maybe, with the resourcefulness and grit that are so typical of the working class, fashion for themselves a new beginning.