Walking away from the cities they built

"Poverty will kill us before the virus does."

by Sukanya Sharma

As the clock struck twelve on March 25th, it was time for people in India to be inside their homes commencing a twenty-one-day lockdown. In the four hours after the Prime Minister’s address, which received a viewership of 197 million people across India, the public hustled to stock their homes with food and necessities. By zero hour of the 25th, the affluent in India had pretty much readied themselves for home and a from-home life. In the midst, several grew anxious — those who did not know where their next meal would come from. In a country where more than half the population are involved in the unorganised sector, daily wage determines daily meals. The lagging agricultural sector often forces workers to migrate internally from rural regions to urban areas in search of better earning opportunities. All that cities provide to those without formal skills are jobs and wages depending on the worker’s daily participation and poor living conditions, most of which do not qualify for physical distancing. For many, stocking up is not even an option. A 21-day lockdown would be perilous. With the halt in the activity of establishments such as shops, restaurants, industries, and construction sites, not only would there be no food to stock up on, but no avenue to earn a morsel. Moreover, news reports were rife with instances of police personnel on patrol dismantling vegetable vendors’ carts (their sources of livelihood) or publicly humiliating anyone found on the streets. 

With inter-state transportation shut down since the 22nd of the month, millions commenced by foot, post the lockdown, on journeys that would be hundreds of miles long. The fear was of death, not from a novel virus, but an age-old qualm – hunger. “We’re doomed” … “If we don’t die of the disease, we’ll die of hunger,” explained Mr Chandra Mohan, who works as a plumber in New Delhi’s suburbs. “No one is helping us. The cops have thrashed us around, and we are going to die of hunger. Koi ration bhi nahi hai, toh ham kya karein? (We don’t even have any ration, what should we do?)” asked a 37-year-old labourer, Mehul Pandey. As of now, more than 20 people have reportedly died making a journey where the travelers had nowhere to halt, no eatery to feed themselves at or quench their thirst. Witnessing such huge numbers on the road, the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh offered around 1000 buses to take the passengers home. Images of crowded buses appear at odds with the social distance prescribed. In a dilemma between hunger or disease, hunger had won. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his monthly radio broadcast, “Mann Ki Baat” or “Heart to Heart” apologised to fellow Indians for the difficulties that the people are facing due to the lockdown. “And when it comes to my underprivileged brothers and sisters, they must be wondering on the kind of Prime Minister they have, who has pushed them to the brink! My wholehearted apologies, especially to them.” noted the PM. However, as the Prime Minister had a heart to heart with the citizens, the rightful audience of the apology walked on carrying limited water and food, but ample fear and anxiety. Would they have a radio or even the desire to tune in to one specific broadcast, is hard to say. 

Reaching their respective states was not enough. In Bihar, Indian authorities locked up people who entered from the big cities, in masses. Videos of migrant workers, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, being sprayed with bleach without any protection, adults and children alike, under police supervision came to fore. In Haryana, India has gone as far as opening temporary jails to lock up the defaulters. In other words, these migrant workers are being treated as criminals. Rohan Venkatramakrishnan explains that because workers seasonally migrate to cities from rural regions, their jobs are mostly informal, and they do not possess any voting rights in the big cities. This pertains to their invisibility in most decision-making processes. Visibility is often rendered to the migrant workers only by huge upheavals like the impromptu demonetization in 2016 and the lockdown announcement last week which practically allowed for a few hours of preparation. Although Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minister announced on 26th March that food supplies, LPG and money for sustenance would be provided to those in need, migrant workers were not included in the scheme. Now that these workers strive to survive with dignity, they are treated as criminals. The supposed offence of the travelers is that the government’s orders have not been taken into consideration. However, the authority’s fear of contagion does not fit properly in how the migrants have been treated. Locking people up in packed sheds is not the ideal way to curb the spread of the virus. Or is it that people under a certain economic line do not count as a priority to be saved? While the government made efforts to bring home Indians from around the world and quarantine them with proper care, why could it not spare a buck to consistently set up camps for at least thermal checks for internal migrants? Why then were people of all ages, including children, sprayed with bleach without so much of a mask to protect their eyes and mouths? The question arises, would that ever happen to the more affluent classes in the country? 

Quarantine is indeed the need of the hour but perhaps the implementation of such a measure requires foresight into how everyone, including the invisible, will cope. Perhaps a surprise quarantine announcement in a country where the majority participate in unorganized occupations will render thousands vulnerable. Putting governments or authorities aside, how do such decisions portray us, a society in which some fear hunger more than an extremely fast-spreading virus? How is it that in all of the experience wherein the less endowed suffer a calamity the gravest, do we forget to acknowledge their presence while making a decision? Who are we trying to protect from the virus? How did we not foresee that offering some guarantee of sustenance, would help the country, overall? With such varied experiences of the same disaster, one happens to wonder if quarantine is a privilege. It is surely a privilege to have sanitizers or a stocked fridge as many across the board have come to realise. Is it a privilege to even be able to worry about the virus? Nevertheless, this incident comes with a lesson, probably a repeated one. Perhaps the next time we make a decision, we will ponder over who are we saving? Are we saving everyone?

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