Delhi looked a mess as thousands of poor trudged tragically back towards the poverty they had hoped to escape by migrating for work. Images of borders and bus terminals thronging with the trudging thousands on the edge of hope reached all the connected villages of India. Coronavirus and social distancing are clearly secondary to a certainty of poverty and prejudice in the village that is a known. Unknown is a lockdown in an alien city, or state, avoidable at any cost.
So a tragedy has unfolded across the country, as the poorest of the poor seek the solace of a village that had once pushed them into the big bad world of migration. Even before the lockdown, work had ceased, monies dried up, trains stopped and buses vanished. The city, and the state, shut down on them, tight and brutal. So the poor did what has been done since the beginning of mankind, migrate.
The view from the district, however, is just as messy, and equally tragic across a wide swathe of the country. But as seen from one of the peripheral districts of Rajasthan, images are just as tragic, just as hopeless, and just as desperate. It is, however, being played across the peninsula, in every state. The calls for help span the age spectrum, districts, and caste as well as community.
Unlike the migrations to eastern India in the 18th and 19th centuries, which were largely of one community from the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, the peninsula migrants have moved from Udaipur and Jodhpur divisions. They are overwhelmingly first-generation business persons, or labour, and encompass the entire caste/community directory. Most seized the opportunities following the 1991 liberalisation. From trucking entrepreneurs in Odisha, to textile merchants in Surat, the entire coast has a Rajasthani presence. And most want to come back, and they are on the move. Thousands made their way back since Rajasthan announced its lockdown on March 21.
With sincerest apologies to Alvin Toffler, this is the third wave, of reverse migration. The first was caused by the jolt of demonetisation, second by the agonies of GST implementation, and now, the largest movement after another 8 pm address to the nation. The previous two announcements affected businesses in different ways, and caused limited migrations. But this unprepared lockdown announcement has pushed the entire spectrum of small business and labour on the road. And they’re moving legally, and illegally, in enormous numbers.
It needn’t have been this tragic if only the “state” had more faith in its people. But in a manner that mirrors a colonial-era distrust of the natives, Indians cannot be taken into confidence about vital decisions. Two analogies stand stark as compared to the Indian government’s surreptitious steps.
On May 4, 2016, the European Central Bank announced that the 500 Euro note would cease to be in circulation at the end of 2018, a full 36 months later. The reasons given were even more explicit than what India used later in November, including calling 500 Euros the bin Laden note! But the ECB still gave its citizens 36 months to prepare, unlike India where natives cannot be trusted to handle their earnings. Most of it legal, as it later turned out.
On March 24, South Africa announced a nationwide lockdown to be implemented from midnight of March 26, unlike India which gave its people four hours on the same day. With a population about the same as Rajasthan, South Africa obviously has more faith in its people so gave them time to prepare. The ECB demonstrated the same in the Eurozone, but obviously the colonial overhang in India makes the “state” unwilling to believe its people.
The chronology of COVID-19 in India makes for some strange dates. From the first positive case at the end of January to the midnight lockdown of March 24, the government of India took a number of steps, as did the people and other institutions. So it is strange that the country couldn’t be informed in advance that a lockdown was due. After numerous special flights that brought Indians back, thermal screening for other countries, complete cancellation of visas, curtailing flights, and so on. The government of India had the capacity to do all that, but not prepare its people. On March 11, the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic. The WHO director general said: “This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled.”
So on March 13, the India-South Africa cricket series was called off, sensibly. And a day later, the Ministry of Home Affairs declared COVID-19 a national disaster on March 14, but did nothing to employ the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Just as well, for the NDMA order/advisory of March 24 is the epitome of inanity. Since the priority was to conquer Bhopal, the Centre remained occupied there, and a mess was brewing underneath.
The Chinese New Year is the largest annual human migration, but was curtailed or stopped in some instances by Beijing as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. The Centre now has the dubious achievement of causing the largest human migration in post-Partition memory. People moved and many still want to move because they have experienced and inherited memories of hunger. And having seen the insensitivities of the “state”, they also don’t want a lonely uncared death. Both fears drive their miserable tragic trudge, district to district.
The article first appeared in the print on April 17, 2020 with the title ‘The state cannot hold’ The writer is a former MP from Rajasthan