A national tragedy

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 5/18/2020 11:12:19 AM IST

 India is not only battling the coronavirus pandemic with one of the world’s biggest lockdown but also battling the humungous humanitarian crisis of millions of stranded migrant labourers desperate to return home. According to official estimates, there are probably around 5.6 crore interstate migrants who are the backbone of the big city economy, constructing houses, cooking food, serving in eateries, delivering takeaways, cutting hair in salons, making automobiles, plumbing toilets and delivering newspapers, among other things. The first coronavirus case was detected in India on January 30. The number of cases kept rising through March. That should have alerted the government to prepare the country for an impending lockdown. Instead, on March 13, officials maintained the coronavirus epidemic was “not an emergency”. Five days later, on March 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on national television and urged Indians to observe a self-imposed “janata” or people’s curfew on March 22 to defeat the virus. Then there was this bizarre spectacle of a union minister organising the “GO Corona Go” to chase away the virus. This set off an exodus of migrant workers who feared the closure of work in cities would leave them vulnerable. Unfortunately as they rushed to get back to their villages, the Indian Railways cancelled most trains. On March 21, the entire rail and transport network came to a halt and that was the closedown for the helpless migrants. Over the subsequent weeks, stranded migrant workers found themselves running out of food and money. The Modi government issued directives to states, which in turn issued advisories to employers asking them to pay full wages and salaries to workers during the lockdown period. However, the government did not account for the fact that many small businesses had limited cash reserves and did nothing to support small businesses during this period. By March 26, the government announced the doubling of food rations for Indians enrolled in the public distribution system but completely ignored the fact that most migrant workers do not have ration cards. On May 16, the Ministry of Railways claimed it had transported 15 lakh migrants in Shramik trains. The government had also claimed it was paying 85% of the fare and leaving the states to pay the 15%. However, most states were unable to do so for whatever reasons. Having no hope of survival, several lakh migrant labourers instead chose to risk death by walking home. The result is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: millions of impoverished working-class Indians are walking, cycling, dangerously hitchhiking home, sometimes over distances of more than 1,000 km, often on empty stomachs. More than 170 people have died in accidents on the way. Some state governments tried to facilitate buses, but these were quickly overrun. Thousands of others have been placed in quarantine centres and relief camps. In recent weeks, there have been big protests by migrant workers in Gujarat state and Mumbai city, demanding they be allowed to go home. In many states, several thousand migrant labourers had no food, no money and no hope. What was in plenty were the dandas of policemen used to keep them under control when they were demanding to be taken back to their home states.The tranches announced to restart the economy may not happen for a long time because the migrant labourers are certainly in no mood to return after all that they have been through.

Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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