Of the many, many countries that COVID has now locked down, India stands, or rather, walks, alone. Bereft of transport, by road or rail, people are walking home, to nearby districts, and to far-off destinations several hundred kilometres away, the mother carrying belongings on her head, the father carrying the child on his shoulder. It is an image of despair, but also immense power — a vivid reminder of individual agency to the powers that believed they would passively accept being locked down.
Invisible, largely, in the Census and in national sample surveys — and consequently to administrators — field studies have consistently claimed short-term labour mobility in India was significant. The past week has seen emphatic validation of these claims as highways across the country have been pedestrianised. In its callous haste, the Union government, when it announced the lockdown, did not think through how migrants, caught unawares, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, would respond. Now they know.
At first, the state seemed to realise that this determined column of citizens could not be forced to turn back. Indeed, herding them and locking them down would only defeat the lockdown’s purpose of social distancing. So, it offered succour.
With unusual alacrity, state governments responded, often in partnership with local communities, to rapidly establish spaces of food and shelter for the now suddenly visible migrants, as city residents locked themselves down. But, they walked regardless.
Then, like headless chickens, the state flip-flopped — it first offered transport for stranded migrants, and then as the scale became predictably overwhelming — revealed the mailed fist inside the velvet glove. Governments converted highways to shelters and issued orders to turn stadia into “temporary jails”, at a time when other countries are turning them into hospitals.
One can offer reasons why the walking continued: Poor implementation of meal programmes, low awareness, the standing rabi crop waiting to be harvested, and the fleeting possibility of transport, which brought migrants to the streets even in Kerala, where they had thus far accepted their confinement far from home.
But, at the heart, their walking conveys a deep distrust of the state, especially when it promises assistance. They act as if the offer is a diversionary tactic to make them relent by a wily state, which will go back to being its uncaring self, once they do.
And there is the pull of home — the need to be together with family at this time of radical uncertainty — to draw strength from each other, to be on familiar ground to combat whatever might come. Our cities have always been exclusionary to migrants, and even today, the reason we want them to stay put is to protect ourselves.
As a country, we have not succeeded in making people believe that the state is there for them, that it will have their back for as long as it takes — that it is their right as citizens of India. The poor see and experience the state often through a lens of violence and control, as evidenced in the recent orders, and rarely through a prism of care.
Indeed, if the imagery of Indians walking across the country were not so gripping globally, would we be as worried? If there is no community transmission (perhaps some cluster transmission) as the government reminds us, a group of walking migrants are not as high a risk as is being made out to be. Of course, if community transmission has begun, we should be more worried — but then, the government has refused to commence prevalence testing.
So, what is to be done now? Should they just be allowed to walk hundreds of kilometres? It seems inhumane, but if transport is offered, we need a system for coping with the kind of demand that showed up in Delhi when UP arranged a thousand buses. Given a chance, many would like to go home.
A two-pronged approach can be considered. Promise them that, if they want to, arrangements will be made to take them home — but only if they came, registered and stayed in designated shelters — and calling them “temporary jails” is unhelpful. Given the understandable distrust of government, this has to be a credible promise — either from the home minister or prime minister. To control transmission, we need to identify the migrants and their destination so that local governments can be informed. This can be collected from their Aadhaar cards at registration.
Then, after collecting their Aadhaar details, those within walking distance — say, a hundred kilometres — who want to walk, can be allowed to do so. Once they reach home, we need to ensure panchayats test a sample of returning migrants — they will know who they are, even if the Aadhaar database is delayed. Kerala and Odisha have been ahead of the curve in delegating responsibilities and resources to panchayats — the ministry of rural development and the finance commission should support this nationally.
Panchayats need to be prepared to combat the epidemic. Others who want to go would be enrolled in a digital ticket system only for migrants in the designated shelters. Their Aadhaar number, address and destination would be sent to a centralised number and they would receive a date- and time-specific bus ticket, via SMS/WhatsApp and printed lists at shelters. Buses should leave from the shelters, to minimise crowding at central bus stations, and their Aadhaar checked at boarding.
Concurrently, to identify places receiving migrants, which are thus priority high-risk areas of COVID transmission, telecom firms can be asked to analyse VLR data from their base stations, especially before and after the lockdown, to identify areas showing a rise in subscribers, and if possible, their previous location. This has to be done quickly before the data is deleted.
Locking people up is no way to enforce a lockdown or manage an epidemic. We are a mature technologically advanced state with a database for all its residents. We can do better.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 31, 2020 under the title ‘ Why they walk home.’ The writers are with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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