Migrant Deaths: What Modi Govt’s Response In Parliament Tells Us

This Monsoon Session of Parliament has underlined the erosion of Parliament & govt’s diminishing accountability.

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Opinion
4 min read
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There didn't seem to be even a flicker of remorse, as the Modi government declined to pay compensation for migrant deaths and/or job losses because of COVID-19 on the plea that it had no data for either.

In response to a written question in Parliament, the union labour ministry shrugged off all responsibility for the misery that more than 1 crore migrant workers went through after the Centre unilaterally shut down the country on 24 March, with just four hours notice, ostensibly to ‘control the spread’ of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The question (of compensation) does not arise,’’ the ministry said, as “no such data (on deaths and job losses) is maintained.”

Migrant Deaths: Did Govt Even Bother To Count?

It is beyond belief that the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis seems to have bypassed those who were voted to power by the very people they’ve washed their hands off. While India’s many-tiered governance system makes it difficult to collate data in one centralised place from villages, districts and states across this vast country, it is not impossible.

The Modi government’s blank response in Parliament suggests that it didn’t even make the effort.

It knew the Monsoon Session was coming up. Surely it anticipated questions on the migrant issue after the tragedy grabbed headlines, nationally and internationally. Not since Partition has India seen mass migration on this scale, as panicked, jobless workers trudged their way back to their villages, clutching their children and meagre possessions in their arms. Many died on the way, like the 11 who were run over by a train in Maharashtra. But the government didn’t bother to count. Many fell sick out of sheer hunger and fatigue. The government didn’t keep track of this either.

And using the plea of an economy that is largely in the unorganised sector, the government did not compile the number of jobs that were lost, as restaurants, workshops, inns and motels, ancillary units – and other employment avenues that keep the wheels of commerce turning – had to close because of a hastily-imposed national lockdown that was probably the harshest in the world, save China.

Why The Opposition Wasn’t Able To ‘Corner’ Modi Govt

It took the Centre almost two months to run special trains for unemployed migrants desperate to go back home. Even these were mired in controversy over payment, lack of food, water and hygiene, and trains that lost their way.

In a normal session of Parliament, the government would have found itself cornered for its apparent ‘callousness’ towards the weak and vulnerable. Even a dysfunctional, disunited Opposition such as we have today would have made it a point to put the government on the mat over a populist failure.

But this is an abnormal session with strict COVID protocol restrictions, making it virtually impossible for the Opposition to make a noise, disrupt proceedings, or pin down the government.

The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha are sitting for just four hours each every day. Question Hour stands suspended. And the session will have a total of just 18 sittings. It makes it easy for the government to go scot-free and evade being probed on questions it wants to avoid.

More than any other session, the current one taking place under the shadow of a pandemic underlines the erosion of Parliament in recent years, with a diminishing sense of accountability on the part of the government.

Many opposition MPs, for instance, feel that the government would have used the ‘excuse’ of COVID-19 to postpone a meeting of Parliament indefinitely, so that it wouldn’t have to face a grilling on the four burning issues of the day:

  • the continuing contraction of the economy
  • the ongoing tension with China
  • a pandemic that is out of control
  • humanitarian crisis arising from the mass migration of unemployed workers

Was Monsoon Session 2020 Mere ‘Lip Service’?

The manner in which the COVID protocols have been structured to restrict the cut and thrust of normal parliamentary debate, and the heavy legislative agenda prepared for both Houses, suggest that the Monsoon Session was convened only because it had to. Because the system still pays lip service to the Constitution.

There are two constitutional provisions that forced the government’s hand:

  • one is the clause that no more than six months should pass between two sessions
  • the other is the requirement that any ordinance the government introduces between sessions must be ratified by Parliament at the earliest, otherwise it lapses

The Modi government promulgated 11 ordinances in the period between the end of March and mid-September. All 11 are up for ratification, including three controversial ones pertaining to changes in farming and agriculture practices and marketing.

In fact, these three ordinances are proving to be a headache for the Modi government, as farmers in north India, particularly in BJP-ruled Haryana, are up in arms in protest. The issue is threatening to destabilise the Khattar government in the state.

Apart from the ratification of these ordinances, the government has listed 40 bills for passage in this session.

While the session may prove productive in terms of completing legislative business, its most important function, which is to hold the government accountable, seems to have become irrelevant.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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