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Coronavirus Pandemic; Modi Failed to Factor Exodus of Migrant Labor Causing Untold Hardship During the Lockdown

Updated on May 13, 2020
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An senior air warrior and political observer who has the pulse of the region and can sense a change when it comes.

The beginning

The genesis of the problem commenced with the Coronavirus often referred to earlier by Donald Trump as "China virus." it doesn't matter from where the virus originated but the fact is, it entered India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a lot of praise for his handling of the virus. He immediately ordered a nationwide lockdown and that meant that there were no trains, no buses, no cars on the roads, and all shopping malls and shopping centers, except for medical and small Kirana shops selling daily needs shut. It was as if the entire nation had been put under curfew.

For some time the virus was contained and India with a population of 130 billion had just a few hundred dead. But one aspect which was overlooked by the planners. They did not factor what was to happen to the labor and the factory workers who would have now nothing to do. Despite the plea by the Prime Minister that owners of industries do not stop the payments/ wages of the staff, the fact is that 99% of the owners of small-time hotels, shops, traders, including the construction barons could not pay the wages to the workers. This workforce was perforce asked to remain confined in their house and so were the laborers.

Confining to the house is okay but there was the added factor that these unfortunate people, became destitute. They had no money and no food to eat. This was a calamity that should have been taken care of. I wonder how the planners including the Prime Minister were unable to gauge this simple fact as to how could the labor and the workers sustain themselves without wages.

A feeling of helplessness spread across the workforce and though Modi got a lot of support from the middle class and the well-heeled, his neglect of the poorest of the poor is difficult to explain. The Indian prime minister claims that he is a man from the working class as he was selling tea when he was a boy. He should have been the first man who should have understood the repercussions of this lockdown

The lockdown resulted in the daily wagers, laborers, factory workers, and ordinary employees of shops left with nothing to do, confined to their homes with no money, and no food to eat. What was this force expected to do? let us face it India has been built by this migrant labor. India is such a huge country that normally workers from different parts of the country work hundreds and thousands of miles away in another state and when they were stranded in alien circumstances, their first thought is to go home. This is human psychology and it is not understood how the Indian Prime Minister who himself came from the same background was unable to gauge this simple fact.



The idle working class was prey to all sorts of rumors but the basic problem was that they had no money as wages had stopped. The worst-hit were the daily wagers, laborers who invariably come from outside the state. All of them decided to go back to their home state, which for some was 100 or 1000 miles away. Without any transport available and no food to eat these laborers decided to walk to their homes.

This was the tragedy that could have been avoided and one is reminded that such an exodus last time took place was in 1947, when the state of Pakistan was carved out of India. I was not there at that time but I was told that my maternal grandfather and grandmother had joined the trudge from Pakistan to New Delhi and at that time hundreds died on the way.

This time also many of the workers died while walking in the summer heat to try and reach their homes. This continued for over a month till NGOs and the human rights activists began to pressure the government to do something about this exodus.

The government wasted precious time thinking of what to do. It must be brought out that the government under the direction of premier Narendra Modi sent aircraft to Iran and China to bring back Indians who were stranded there. They were brought them back free of charge and one can understand the cost of using a Boeing jet for a flight to bring back Indians who were stranded abroad is. It runs into thousands of rupees and the government brought these people initially free. In later flights from other countries, they charged them.

The government could have immediately put a stop to this exodus by making arrangements for the migrants to go back to their home states free of cost. This did not happen and after a lot of hue and cry and almost 6 weeks after the exodus started the Railway Ministry announced the running of trains from major places in India to the home states. This was all very well but the few migrant laborers who boarded these trains had to fork out almost Rs.600 to 800 for the trip at a time when they had no money. At the same time, the labor which has already part of the exodus to their home states were just allowed to carry on and no effort was made to contact them, to stop them and give them transport.

It was only when the national newspapers in editorials asked the government to take action and human rights groups took up the case that the opposition also woke up. It began to criticize the government. The government then reacted and announced that food packets and other amenities including a small sum of money would be given to all the laborers and workers. Nobody thought about the mass which was already on the road.

Worse was to come as in such a condition the rumors abound and in some places like in Mumbai when workers were told that train was being readied for them to go to their hometown they rushed out into the streets which were against the lockdown and they were lathi-charged by the police and many were injured. The police also in my view could have reacted better but then leadership is not everybody's cup of tea.



Now after six weeks the government announced that the trains would be running free and the payment for the tickets for the workers would be shared between the state and the central government. My only point is why was this not thought of earlier and why did nobody in the government think of the daily laborers, the workers, the small-time employees, who were left in the lurch with the sudden imposition of the lockdown and curfew.

This sudden imposition of curfew and lockdown resulted in the biggest migration back to home states since 1947. As I have pointed out India is a very big country and populations from one state go and work in another state. This is part of the one nation that India is. At the time of crisis, these Indians were working in different states thousands of miles from home with no money. They have the instinct to go back. This is confirmed by sociologists. The poor laborer who draws daily wages and helps construct the massive structures which we see in Mumbai and Delhi, the wonderful flyovers and the freeways has been neglected. He is the man who is really making India and yet the Modi government at a crucial moment allowed this exodus to take place.

There is any number of apologists and thinkers who have come out in support of the government. They don't have any point and just parroting that the Modi government has done a great job, is not the end of the story. Nobody can explain why the government could decide in a split second, the evacuation from Wuhan free of cost, and did nothing for the thousands of labor which were walking out on the dusty road to reach their home 100 or 1000 miles away.

The government has not been able to explain why it did not cater to the fact that industries that are closed could in any case not pay their workers and the daily wage earners. In any case, they would not get any payment at all. Is it not the responsibility of the government to see to it that their fears were allayed and somebody had talked to them and given them money and food.

Now it is the month of May and the summer heat is on and as I write these lines I am pained to note that many workers and laborers are still walking and the government seems to be paralyzed.

Yesterday, the Indian Prime Minister announced a massive dose for everybody to help curtail the effect of the virus. As per the statement, 10% of the GDP will be used for this purpose. This is a good thing but such a huge amount of money was not required if the dignity of the worker had been thought off. Mahatma Gandhi had said that the dignity of life is important even for the poor man. I am afraid the Modi government faulted on this account.

Now the government is planning to remove the lockdown and start a limited commercial activity. This is correct because you cannot have a complete shut down forever but again if you want to kickstart the economy you need workers. There are hundreds on the road already and those who have reached home what about them? nobody has thought about how they will come back to work at their old place.

The Railway Ministry has started some trains but they are all luxury trains where the fare is so high that a worker from Bihar wants to go back to work in Maharashtra he will not be able to do it because he simply cannot afford the fare which runs into two or Rs.3000.How can you kickstart an economy without a workforce? The workforce is now disillusioned, sad, and as pointed out by human rights activists feeling that their life is of no importance.

The opposition in India should have highlighted this plight of the workers and the laborers forcefully with the government. It failed as it was more intent in scoring brownie points against the Modi government on extraneous things.

One hopes that the government will work in a way wherein the first interest will be of the daily wagers, laborers, workers, and factory hands and see how they can be integrated into the economy for it to kickstart. You can't do it without them and yet this particular thought has not dawned on the central government. No amount of package will be effective until this problem is solved.

I do feel that Modi who has so far led the nation very well will now make his priority the workforce, which makes the items that the middle class consumes. I am a nationalist and my great uncle, father, and I served the Indian Armed Forces for over 100 years. I feel as a nationalist I have a right to point out the mistakes of the Modi government


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