COVID-19 induced nationwide lockdown has put the whole country into a state of siege. Given the immense hardships that the lockdown has put on the poor, it looks like the government is not at war with the virus but with its poor and marginalised population.
So, when the lockdown triggered the biggest exodus India has seen since the partition, many sighed, even sympathised with the working class, a feature unknown to the Indian elites. That did not last long!
Soon the sympathy was replaced with the dread that these migrants might carry the disease with them to other states. So they were stopped, put in isolation wards, with no food or water, so they don’t spread the virus…
But the rules don’t apply to all. Those belonging to the rich or middle class can travel around, not just that, they are even provided free government bus services to bring them back home.
Last week, some students and their families from Kota coaching classes started the hashtag #SendUsBackHome, which starts to trend. UP government promptly obliged and made arrangements to bring them back to their homes in Uttar Pradesh.
The government ordered for 200 buses to Agra and 100 buses from Jhansi to ply to Rajasthan, all buses decked with water, food, hand sanitizers, and masks for the students. Buses were to carry only 25-30 students to comply with social distancing.
The Rajasthan Chief Minister also asked other states to send buses to take students home.
As the UP govt called back students of UP living in #Kota #Rajasthan, it can also be done for students from other states. Students in Kota can be sent to their home states on the consent of the concerned state govt so that these young boys & girls do not panic or feel depressed.
— Ashok Gehlot (@ashokgehlot51) April 17, 2020
One must remember Rajasthan has a few districts which are hotspots. So these students would also be possible corona carriers that the migrant workers were alleged of!
This is not the first time the UP government has done this “class” act. During the first stage of lockdown, luxury buses were arranged to send 900 Gujarati tourists who were stuck in Varanasi.
Many labourers were forced to start a long March home because they did not have any means of transport to get back home.
It’s not that migrants did not spend money to return to their homes. A The Wire report reported a story about 120 migrant labourers, who had started to walk back to their home states, were stopped at Vapi. They were stopped by the police, they were offered food and water, and soon after that, they were beaten up by the police of violating the lockdown. They were then forced into water containers, which are long cylindrical containers which have to holes or ventilation. Migrants were forced to bribes to transport authorities just to be able to go back home.
At least 22 migrants and kin have died of heat, hunger and exhaustion. Why no hashtags for them? Why the state could not provide any buses or them?
Why the bias?
While one sympathises with anyone who wants to return home and be with their family, but why one section was thrown under the bus and the other provided luxury buses does raise uncomfortable questions?
“This will open up a Pandora’s box. If you allow students, on what grounds can you stop migrant labourers who are also stuck,” Bihar Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar said in a letter to the Home Ministry urging that special permits granted by the Rajasthan government be stopped.
Government policies on who gets to go back home and who has to stay is deeply entrenched in class and caste bias.
State and Centre governments have been more involved in ensuring that upper-class India, 2% is comfortable during this lockdown, than the 98%.
Migrant labourers, many of whom fall in the lower class and caste ladder have been largely invisibilized even as they form the backbone of urban India. Even in Pandemic, at best, they are left to fend for themselves and at worst subjected to police brutalities.
While the blame mostly lies with the governments, they also act on the conscience of society. Many who supported the Kota students hashtags could have started #BringBackTheMigrants hashtags. But they didn’t! They didn’t run any social media campaigns to put pressure on the governments to arrange buses for them or adequate food and shelter.
The state has wilfully blocked the needs of the migrants because the migrants are the under-belly of the system. Their rights are disposable, much like their bodies and their identities for the state.
The numbers at Delhi´s Anand Vihar bus stand and Mumbai´s Bandra do not lie. They might not have twitter hashtags to show their plight to the Chief Minister or Prime Minister office but the visuals of how India has ignored its poor to cater for a few Richie riches are for the whole world to see.