Written by Navneet Sharma
‘Stay home, stay safe’
The above pronouncement is the government of India’s response to the pandemic. But what does it mean to the people who are homeless, people who are migrants, daily wage earners, urban poor, and slum dwellers? It also does not make any sense to those who are cramped in a 6’ by 6’ shanty, have to share toilets and tap water, it also does not make any sense to footpath dwellers and those who live in night-shelters. Who are these people? Why do they come to the city “beautiful”? Who are these people, who do not abide by the government diktat to maintain physical or social distancing and stay home and stay safe? Why have they turned up on the streets, why are they “walking” all the way to their mofussil towns and homes? They are the “workforce” with the help of which India wants to be a five trillion economy. They are the “resource”, “capital” and “market” which makes India the fastest growing economy. They are the labourers and craftsmen of the Make in India programme. They are the ones who build skyscrapers, roads, bridges, bungalows. They work in industries, as house helps, street vendors, rickshaw pullers and sweepers.
In pre-pandemic times, they were the necessary evils, accommodated disdainfully in slums, but once the pandemic broke, they became an eyesore for the middle classes and elites. With the abrupt announcement of the lockdown they became “useless”. With no earning and wages in sight and the looming fear of the corona infection, these people want to return to their “native” places. But they are not people who are stranded overseas, they are not budding engineers or doctors burning the midnight oil in coaching towns for whom the state expresses concern and ferries them back in planes and air-conditioned buses. They are the masses and masses must fend for themselves and must provide political mileage in centre-state rifts. These are the “girmitiyas” within their own country.
Girmitiyas, is a term for indentured Indian labourers who were shipped in hordes to Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and the Caribbean Islands. This was a form of exploitation by the colonial powers. This term evolved with the corruption of the word “agreement” which these labourers had with their colonial masters.
India sees only those who stay on pavements, roadsides, railway platforms or streets or in pipes or in open spaces as homeless. According to the 2011 census, there are 0.77 million homeless people in India. There are 18 million street children in India and more staggering is the number of slum dwellers — 78 million. There are 90 million people in India who make less than a dollar in a day. These are the people worst-affected by the lockdown. These are mostly the migrant population who come to the city in search of a better life and livelihood. They were brought to cities with an “agreement” akin to what indentured labourers had – they moved to the city in search of greener pastures but got long working hours, humiliation, exploitation, and even physical abuse not only by the employers but the state as well.
These are the people who now want to go back to their native places, but the state, society, and industry does not want to let them go. Because, after coming out of the lockdown and COVID crisis, these girmitiyas will be required again. The industry has started building a pressure group to stop their movement. Despite the government’s request to not terminate the services of employees or to reduce their wages, people were removed from the payrolls.
The turn of events has made these girmitiyas useless. The intervention of the state for these people was sporadic and Sisyphean. The huge crowds turning out at Anand Vihar in Delhi or in Mumbai, Pune or Bengaluru reflect that the state and the Centre failed to take effective measures. The governments hardly gave a thought to this huge population’s readiness and response to the pandemic lockdown. The shramik specials came during the second lockdown, with the requirement of filling up the registration form. The state has started moving these girmitiyas in a manner that lacks foresight — how does it intend to move them back to their workplaces once the lockdown is lifted? Many have lost their lives on their way back home. The question remains: “How many more such incidents are required to shake the conscience of the government?’
(The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh. The views expressed are personal.)
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