Stay Home, Stay Safe-but what if you can't?
The ongoing pandemic has left everyone shaken up, with most countries in complete lockdowns and their economies at a standstill. As COVID-19 suddenly became rampant across India mid-March (around the Ides of March, if you will), the government announced a full-fledged nationwide lockdown with effect from the 22nd of March- this meant shutdown of all malls and shops, restaurants closed, all construction activities brought to a halt and the roads were left deserted. For us.
As we withdrew ourselves into the comfort of our homes, hoarding supplies we didn’t necessarily require and talking to friends and family over Zoom calls and HouseParty, the migrant labourers of the country couldn’t stay in cities due to the lack of work-and so, since no transportation facilities were available, they began their long walk home.
Migrant labourers constitute a vast majority of India’s population. They come to the urban areas in search of work-and more often than not secure a low paying job and manage to get by. They mostly survive on daily wages, and if they fall ill or miss a day for some other reason-they don’t get paid that day. They have no job security and no other benefits. With the sudden lockdown which came with no prior warning, they became jobless overnight, perplexed with how to go about this. The jobs they had, varied from working in dhabas (roadside local eateries), construction workers and other daily-wage jobs. All landlords at the declaration of the lockdown shut down their small businesses, leaving their workers with nothing. Some of the labourers had their entire livelihoods connected to their jobs-they slept near or sometimes where, they were employed. Many of them come from places across states -where they now had to walk back, the distances varying from 400 km to 1000 km, or even more. All buses, trains and other means of transportation were shut and so the families had no other option but to continue on foot, with no resources for sustenance and just 50 rupees or even less in their wallets. As fatigue overwhelms them, their stomachs empty and the sense of hope slowly vanishes, they are both upset and angry at the way the government has handled the situation.
It does make one ponder, that why the same government and country which sent out planes and flights to get those Indians stranded abroad back to the nation’s soil couldn’t arrange for buses or trains for those who work day in and day out for us. What hit them more severely was that they had no warning. Some wish if they knew beforehand, they could have made arrangements for the way but the lockdown came with a couple of hours’ notice- rendering them jobless within a matter of hours, thrown out of their jobs without many even getting their salaries and some were suddenly evicted- they then flocked the streets in an attempt to get on the route home, but the journey was not easy. With families to support and no money to survive, this was risky, and some workers even encountered severe brutalities for “not being at home”.
We’re now well into the 4th stage of lockdown and some means of transportation have begun. On 1st May, the government began the Shramik trains to help escort labourers from the urban areas back their hometowns, but this wasn’t free. Crowds gathered as they figured out a way to get home, but these schemes have done little to improve their conditions. The past two weeks or so have also seen an upsurge of accidents faced by the migrants too, on their journey home. On May 8th, around 16 migrant labourers lost their lives in a devastating train accident, where they had fallen asleep on the train track thinking all trains had stopped running, unaware that a goods train was to pass by the station. Eventually the government has announced some grants for the migrants, but these have not reached many yet. Some Indian states like Kerala, are doing whatever is in their power to help- by distributing food and resources to the travelling labourers but this is not the case in other places of the country. Worse, despite the governments appeal to employers to give salaries, this has not been the case for all the labourers.
The plight of the workers is being talked about nationwide, and some common people and NGO’s are now focusing on providing relief to them, but this still isn’t enough. A big portion of India’s population is suffering from more than just the fear of Corona, they struggle every day to make ends meet. This shows that social distancing is a privilege, for going home, doesn’t necessarily equate to staying safe for all.
Article by Sana Bashir