Tragedy of being a poor migrant

There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.”

John Green

(Migrant worker Rampukar Pandit crying on phone as he tries to reach his village. Photo credit Atul Yadav. PTI)

When you come to Mumbai, what will strike you most is the stark inequality. High rises on one side of the road while on the other side of the road there will be shanties, there will be people living on footpaths. Initially, you may be surprised or even appalled to see the poverty, the inequality, but then after some time you no longer see it, the observation has lost its novelty and your eyes get used to it. You see people living on the footpath or children selling toys at the signals but now you are no longer shocked and no longer care. Now you look past them and worry about your own life. There is so much going on in your own life to really look around and worry about others.

But, how much you may ignore, poor are there, all around you. Working and earning daily to stay alive, saving some money and sending it back to their families. But, what happens when suddenly there is a lockdown and daily wagers no longer have any job. Because of the lockdown, there isn’t a job for you and you hardly have any savings. So, what will you do in such a situation? You just want to go back. Go back to your place, your village. It is not that things are better there but here in this city there is nothing to hold you back. City may have provided you livelihood but it hasn’t provided a sense of belonging, you are still an outsider here. You want to be back with our own people.

You embark on a hundreds of kilometres journey on foot because you can’t stand to be where you are now and you just want to move. People are walking on roads with their families, their children on their shoulders, they just want to reach home. Life has become too much and now they just want to be home. It doesn’t matter if you die trying to reach home. And what we are witnessing is a harrowing tale of poverty and grief. And suddenly, poverty is staring at you. You can no longer look away.

Now you have to face the reality of India, the truth about India; the fact that India has millions and millions of migrants living on the margins. With this lockdown, they have been pushed back into extreme poverty. With no income and no saving they are totally dependent on help from the government. Lock-down has made him invalid. They cannot work and have no money. They are dependent on large hardheartedness or pity of the government. This is the unkindest thing that may happen to a person. These hard working guys are now surviving on largess of the government. You have stripped him of his dignity.

Migrant worker Dayaram Kushwaha carries his five-year-old son as they walk along a road in Delhi during a nationwide lockdown on 26 March. (Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS)

What we are seeing today is a monumental calamity for millions in India, especially the poor. Daily, we see images of heart wrenching images of workers trying to reach home, walking in the heat of May, trying to reach home. We hear of people dying on roads. And surely, we will get used to these images too.

But what is the role of state here? The state seems to have left the most vulnerable to defend for themselves. Were the migrants factored in when the decision of lockdown was announced? Did the government know or even thought about them when the sudden decision was taken or did the government too had forgotten about them like the rest of us.

Government never lets us forget that we are the fifth largest economy of the world, that we are the fastest growing major economy in the world, that we have one of the highest per capita data usage per smartphone in the world. We want to be in the league of big nations and we talk big. To cope with the lockdown, a 20 Lakh crore(USD 288 billion ) stimulus package which is around 10% of India’s GDP has been announced.

We are waiting to see how the stock market would respond. In fact, many of us believe that the stock market is the best measure of our economy. That Stock market is forward looking and it captures the present, the past and the future expectation. Government too cares much about the stock market and the credit rating agencies and that too at the cost of welfare of the poor. Spending on poor might increase the deficit and credit rating agencies may downgrade India’s rating and FIIs may just disappear and the ever so powerful stock market may just collapse. It already has but this can be attributed to COVID-19. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our market was at an all time high. Surely things were going great, never mind the loose monetary policy of the USA and West which made sure that there is more than enough liquidity in the stock market.

Yes, the economy and stock market are important but what about the migrant labour? What about the poor living on the margins? How fragile is the livelihood of these people? A month or even a week’s disruption in work is enough to send them back into poverty. Has enough been done for them? Only time will tell. This lockdown has brought migrant workers in the spotlight. Let’s hope that the government is compelled to take measures to ensure that migrant laborers get a chance to live a life of dignity that every human deserves. There are going to be many more heartbreaking stories. Let us hope, we don’t get used to them and not get used to the poverty around us and maybe do something about it.

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