Lockdown Diaries3: Out In The Cold

Individual states are scrambling to take care of migrant workers and others, without any help from the union government

(28 March 2020) The first instalment of the Lock Down Diaries (26 March 2020 had dealt with the issue of migrant labour trying desperately to get back home. The callous treatment meted out to them by the authorities – and the extent of the hardship they are undergoing is becoming clearer by the day. With poignant pictures and videos going viral and because of a number of front page stories highlighting their plight, most states have swung into action to try and solve the problem. As has been happening in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic so far in the country, the centre has been lagging, leaving the states to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

Thousands of workers had waited for a couple of days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21 day complete lock down at 8 PM on March 24, to see whether there would be any succour from the administration or others. When it became clear that there was no help coming from the authorities, and there was no immediate prospect of things getting better anytime in the future, they packed their meagre belongings, gathered their families and started out. With meagre savings, and no prospect of any income in the near future, they headed back for their villages. Unlike the middle class or the rich, they did not have cash or savings to allow them to stay around for the 21 days of the lockdown.

Most of them realised they would need to walk the hundreds of miles back. There were no passenger trains because the railway minister announced that no passenger trains would be running during this period. There were no short or long distance buses available either because they had been halted too because of the lock down announcement.

Some tried paying a bit and hitching a ride on trucks that were still moving goods – only to get stuck with the truck drivers as the vehicles got stopped at state borders. One report talked of a group of labourers who had pooled together resources and bribed a Container that was to be ferried to their state. Only to be caught by the police who had been informed by someone.

They tried to get gather together in groups with others headed for the same village, or the same district. Some were young and reasonably strong, but there were plenty of old people and young children too. Some were incapable of walking. A husband carried his wife who had sustained a fracture. A father carried his young daughter. An old woman walked alone.

One of the slightly better off families – it had one member who had started a vegetable stall and had more money than his relatives – had decided initially to ride it out. But, said the vegetable vendor who was selling off all his stock to start out. There were rumours, he said, that the market he bought his vegetables from (he did not go all the way to the Mandi, but bought from a village a few kilometres away from Noida) had detected two Coronavirus patients. (I could not confirm this news from official sites on Coronavirus cases). He had decided to pack up and take his entire family with him back to Bihar. He had a second hand car but was unsure whether it would be allowed to cross borders. He planned to carry all his cash so that he could bribe, if required.

The groups on foot were facing different ethical dilemmas – of the kind that developed countries like Italy have faced in recent times: whether to carry along the old and the weak, or leave them behind in the hope of reaching their villages quicker. So far, most had made the decision to go slow rather than abandon anyone. However it was a long, hard trek and the future was uncertain.

In the couple of days immediately after the PM’s speech, most states battened down and closed their borders, using policemen and barricades to prevent people from moving out of one state to another.

Though the Union Home Ministry guidelines issued after the speech was clear about the essential services that needed to keep ticking, and therefore people working  in those services should be allowed to travel, the message had not filtered down to the policemen tasked with ensuring the lockdown. Most of them stopped everyone, and turned them back. Even doctors going to the hospital were often dissuaded from travelling. (See Lock Down Diaries 2: Medical and Non Medical Problems).

The first reaction of the states was to contain whoever was within the state in order to prevent transmission risks. Even more important, they wanted to prevent people from coming into their states.

The police had a wide leeway and no clear instructions except to prevent people from gathering or moving around like business as normal. Many of them were as scared as anyone else. They had no protective clothing bar a mask and a Lathi. Almost none of the policemen I encountered in my admittedly short rounds have gloves or hand sanitisers. They tried to physically push people back from state and other barriers, unmindful of the risks in case any of these people were infected.

Initially, when the plight of the migrant workers came to light because of media coverage, the states tried to make amends by setting up shelters where these people could be sheltered and given food. Pretty soon they realised that  the numbers would overwhelm them. There was just not enough capacity to hold and feed everybody with enough space for social distancing for the period of the lockdown.

Also, experts could not decide on what was the better solution. Would organising buses to ferry migrant labour back to their states would be better. Or build huge shelters for them and keep them locked up within state borders. In the first 48 hours, most states wanted to try out the latter. Now, many of them are tilting towards the former. Both UP and Delhi administration are offering buses that would take people out of their state borders as are several other states. Maharashtra though seems inclined to keep the workers sheltered within the state itself. Each state is probably taking decisions based on their resources.

As in the first few days, the Central government did not come up with any ideas. The initial response was to push the problem to the states and ask the states to use their disaster funds to take care of the problem. It did not offer to hold coordination meetings with all the states so that a common protocol or solution could be found.

Now, some of the individual ministries are stirring to action. Union Minister for Surface Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has instructed toll plazas to provide packed food to migrants crossing through those toll highways. The Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal has got the railways to turn some of the coaches and wagons into quarantine facilities. (Though why he has not offered to run specific trains for a limited period to take people back to their states is not clear).

The Lock Down has also brought out the best and the worst in people, especially those slightly better off. Many people have gathered together to organise food and water packages for migrant labourers walking back home. Others are gathering money for their transport. But quite a few are also angry – and just want them thrown into jail or quarantined so that they cannot threaten the comfortable lives of those with proper housing and food.

Perhaps, even with proper planning, the task of migrant workers was too big. There are just too many of them and there is always a chance that one or more have come into close contact with someone who is already infected. The Corona virus is a rich man’s disease in the sense that  it has been brought to the country by those who have travelled to virus hotspots. But equally, after coming back home, they have mingled and there is no guarantee that they have not come into contact with migrant labour in some way or the other.

The problem is that until the symptoms start appearing, there are no early warning screening systems that can help. So it is only after another 10 or 15 days before it will become clear how many migrant workers actually came in contact with people infected earlier. And by then, it might be too late to do much about it.


Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta is former editor of Businessworld and Business Today magazines

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