Ever since the Chinese coronavirus pandemic hit the world, our lives have changed drastically. There have been millions of people infected worldwide, and while many have recovered, thousands have lost their lives. In wake of the outbreak, India, like many other countries, announced lockdown to contain the spread of virus and save lives. For a population of over a billion, India had its own set of challenges. While while stay at home was a luxury for many, thousands of migrants across India left the places they were working to go back to their villages. The heartbreaking migrant crisis was as unprecedented.
Psephologist Pradeep Bhandari traveled for over a month to understand and get to the bottom of the ground realities of the migrant crisis. In conversation with OpIndia, Bhandari talks about how the governments fared and what more they could do to mitigate the crisis.
Q: You have traveled for 38 days, what is your reading about situation of migrants on the ground?
I had roughly travelled more than 14,000 kms across 8 states, in my journey on the ground. During my journey I had hardly met an individual who opposed lockdown. Even amongst the migrants, the general sentiment was in favour of lockdown. However there was also a sense of despair which was visible on their faces. There is a thin line between despair and anger which the migrants displayed.
Migrants who were patient and could board the train were happy to go back home, however those who had lonely family back in their village, and had stopped receiving wages from their contractor had no other choice but to leave for home on foot or cycle. The manner in which the returning migrants, will be provided temporary employment will determine that state of the migrants in coming months.
Q: Have migrants turned anti Modi government?
Majority of migrants I spoke to in hindi heartland did not display an anti Modi sentiment. In fact many were of their opinion if Modi was not the PM situation would have been worsen.
The migrants on foot were frustrated and expressed the sense of helplessness on their journey while those who waited and got the train returned with sense of satisfaction. The coming 3 months will determine whether the migrants will remain pro Modi or not depending on delivery of welfare services.
Q: What more needs to be done for the migrants to improve their situation?
It will be extremely critical for state governments to engage with the migrants in the coming months. Caring for the migrants economically, socially, and health wise will be a continuous exercise. On their return to their home states they should be quarantined first.
I remember meeting a group of migrants on cycle from Noida to Mahoba (UP). When I enquired about what they will do on return, the first thing they said -“quanrantine for 14 days”. Level of awareness and voluntary responsibility, resilience in migrants has helped India contain COVID till now. It is extremely imperative that in the coming days food and shelter is taken care of. Home states need to make a state migrant database and centre should also have their details in a single database. With time giving them direct financial benefits should be looked at. Increasing MNREGA will benefit them. They need to be engaged in more public work. It has never happened historically that such huge proportion of migrants have returned back. States should utilise this opportunity to come with state centric model of development which is labour intensive.
Q: Which states fare well and poorly in your state-wise ranking?
Odisha, Telangana, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh fare well while Bengal, Bihar and Maharashtra need to improve. Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh also need to keep track on containing COVID-19 spread. Rest others have performed above average in public perception to the response.
Q: How has the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package received on the ground?
The government has announced a big package focussed on MSME sector, farmers and reforms. It needs to communicate the specifics of the package on the ground in the coming days. The people are aware that government has announced a package, but are yet to gather the specifics of the package to gain benefit.
Q: What are reports from Bengal telling?
The reports from bengsl are worrying. Speaking to people there reflect a sense of worry, lack of clarity in the mind of the residents vis a vis the spread of COVID-19 in the state. As per ground reports, Bengal also did not enforce the lockdown in letter and spirit. Centre needs to minutely track the COVID-19 situation in Bengal as residents to not have complete confidence in state government to fight the pandemic on its own.
Q: How has been the ground travel on migrant crisis? How is the level of awareness? Is social distancing followed?
My approach in my 14,000 km travel was not to reflect the voice of the people or to spread panic. My objective was to help those who are suffering. So if a migrant on the highway was barefoot, apart from documenting his ordeal, I would will also connect the migrant to relevant authorities to help. If sanitisation help is needed we distributed sanitisation kits. In this way we are very fortunate to help many on the roads.
I remember some of them had lost their way to Uttar Pradesh and reached Roorkee in Uttarakhand from Ludhiana, Punjab. We ensured the locomotive passing by could drop them till Meerut from where they could reach their home in East UP. We also used to share the number publicly so that the authorities could reach out to them and help. I would have done injustice to my conscience had I just focused on pain, not making effort to alleviate pain. Ultimately every Indian is in it together.
In villages there is a sense of self confidence that they are more COVID-19 resistant. They had barred outsiders to enter village, even produce was locally sourced in the village. They used gamcha to cover face.
Social distance was not strictly followed at all places. For the migrants on the road, they were anxious to reach back home. Traveling hundreds of kilometres made them impatient and their first preference was not social distancing, but reaching home at the earliest. However, they were self aware of quarantining voluntarily on reaching back. I think migrants are doing best in the given circumstances. Fortunately every day situation is improving as less number of migrants are on the road than before. More than 15 lakh migrants have already reached back, and with increase in Shramik trains and change in the rule needing the permission of state govt to run the Shramik train situation will stabilise in the coming days.