The solicitor general is wrong on migrant workers, writes Barkha Dutt
I suppose, by the solicitor general (SG)’s definition, I am a prophet of doom. I was astonished to read some of his words before the Supreme Court. I was saddened (but relieved) that it took our judiciary this long to intervene on behalf of migrant workers.
I have spent more than 70 days, clocking 15,000 kilometres, travelling through 12 states, chronicling the despair of the workforce that has built our cities, powered our factories, run our kitchens, looked after our children — and was effectively orphaned by elite callousness and lack of political imagination. The Honourable SG, Tushar Mehta, might dismiss me as a “vulture”.
But millions of Indians would have been rendered invisible had a handful of people not doggedly decided to tell their story. We all appreciate that we are not administering a country as humongous and complex as India. We understand that many things are clear with the benefit of hindsight. And that enforcing the world’s biggest lockdown comes with many glitches.
But to attack those who have spoken up for the poor and documented their exodus, on the ground, often at risk to their own lives, is both peculiar and unfeeling.
I remember walking with a migrant worker, a contract labourer in an automobile company, right after the lockdown was first announced. He was seething with rage. “Can they not even arrange buses for us? Is it because we are poor?” He was going to walk hundreds of kilometres to Uttar Pradesh. “Only the poor will die. Not even one child of a politician will die,” he erupted.
To call the coronavirus a great equaliser turned out to be the greatest falsification of our time. From Mumbai to Delhi, from Telangana to Kerala, India’s poor have paid the price to keep our class safe. The lockdown has shielded the wealthy and the upper-middle class. The poorest citizen has been pushed to the periphery.
Being in the field for more than two months has numbed me to the noise of party politics. I find my eyes rolling at the Congress fighting with Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath over buses or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) targeting the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. I don’t watch the yawn-inducing television debates that focus on these extraneous issues. Because out there, in the slum tenements of our country, or at the back of crowded trucks on which workers pay Rs 3,000 to get a narrow spot, all this is alien. And phrases such as social distancing only sound ironical.
At least 92 million Indian households live in one room, sometimes six or eight in a space no larger than a cupboard. Work from home is a concept that means nothing. As entire universes are carried on wheels and the country’s largest exodus since Partition unfolds, some of our city-slicker slogans on hygiene and not-crowding are just new kinds of deracinated privilege. In Dharavi, Mumbai, where I spent a considerable number of days reporting, there are 8,000 common toilets for about eight hundred thousand people, which makes containing the virus an enormous challenge.
As this pandemic exposes the nation’s stratified, unequal society for what it is, some of these inequities are the legacy of decades, of course. And every government is complicit.
But the policy roller-coaster on migrant workers is inexplicable. On March 30, Mehta informed the court that there were “no migrants on the road.” But the truth (unequivocally captured on camera ) is that for nearly two months after that our workers remained on the road. Until one week ago, I met men, women and children on highway after highway, walking on foot, unwilling or unable to wait any longer for trains and buses. Or chasing trucks, with folded hands, begging for a ride, offering anything the driver wanted in exchange.
When the trains were first announced, I was excited to wave off a train from Surat as it took workers to Bihar. But even this was handled with needless lack of transparency and incorrect information. The Centre and states insist workers are not paying for train tickets. But they are. I was on board a train from Karnataka to Uttar Pradesh and every single worker I met had paid for his own ticket, taking loans, selling phones to do so. I interviewed the wife of Qazi Anwar who died on a train going home. They too had bought their own tickets, paying Rs 700 extra to the tout who helped them get these. The SG must know we would all like some good news. But hope cannot be the glossing over of reality or sugar-coating tragedy. I would call doing that an abdication of duty — both moral and professional.