India’s migrant workers deserve better than this, writes Mark Tully
Last Sunday, a friend of mine was in a group which was driven on official business from Delhi to Lucknow. As I have not seen a single report of a long drive and I am locked down in a containment area, I asked him to take notes on what he saw. He was not allowed to stop and interview anyone. All along the 416 km route, he saw migrant workers and their families walking to their homes, most of them were in groups, some alone. The old hobbled supported by sturdy sticks; some younger men, drenched in sweat, for it was a sunny Sunday, carried heavy bags strapped to their backs; others carried sacks on their heads. Babies and young children were held in the arms of their parents, older children clasped their parents’ hands. At a village called Brijghat in Hapur district, the police manhandled young cyclists trying to get past a barricade. My friend’s vehicle was stopped at barricades and checked by the police each time he crossed the borders between districts. All dhabas and shops were closed. Drinking water was only provided at two places. At one place, Sikhs had established a langar and were providing food for the walkers. Within Lucknow, the police checking was intensified but walkers were still to be seen on the ring road.
Nearly six weeks after the first lockdown was announced, this was the scene on the road between the capital of India and the capital of its most populous state. Migrant workers, dismissed by employers, enjoying no protection from their governments, often thrown out of their accommodation by their landlords, in urgent need of food transport and money, driven by desperation to walk home. It is a scene many have described as reminiscent of the migration at Partition. This is the outcome of the largest and one of the strictest lockdowns in the world enforced during the coronavirus disease crisis — a lockdown that has been widely applauded internationally.
Why has the outcry against this suffering inflicted on men and women who are more than 90% of India’s workforce been so muted?
It is, I believe, in part at least, because those in a position to raise their voices have not identified themselves with those who are suffering. This idea came to me from re-reading DH Lawrence’s once-controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover during the lockdown. Set in the industrial midlands of Britain between the two World Wars, the novel is the story of a titled woman’s love for the working-class gamekeeper on the estate of her husband, a mine owner.
One of the themes is the lack of engagement and empathy between the upper-class and the working class as they were known in those days. During a row with her husband over his attitude to the servants, Lady Chatterley says, “I’d have you be aware of people.” He replies, “And I’d have you a little less aware of that kind of people and a little more aware of the people who are after all of your own sort and class.” One of the gamekeeper’s friends asks Lady Chatterley, “Do the upper classes feel any sympathy with working men as has nothing before them, till they drop. Do they sympathise?”
The migrant worker crisis has shown the relevance of that question in today’s India. The economist Jean Dreze, who has dedicated his life to the study of poverty and inequality, said on News18, “The lockdown has been like a death sentence for the underprivileged”, and maintained that “the policies made to contain the pandemic have been made or influenced by a class of people who pay little or no attention to the consequences for the underprivileged.” Nikhil Dey, who along with Aruna Roy, has worked for many, many years empowering workers and farmers put this lack of sympathy even more bluntly. In an NDTV debate on the migrant crisis, he said, “We are not thinking of them as human beings.”