Migrant Crisis: Dear Leaders, Religion Can’t Colour Shared Misery

Bottom line: We need to become an egalitarian society without raising the hackles of people who baulk at socialism. 

5 min read
Image of Congress leader Salman Khurshid, the author of this article, against a background of migrant workers walking home.

We all have serious reservations about the BJP government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The capacity for ‘event management’ and ‘word dressing’ of deficiencies, to present them as ‘accomplishments’, too has been exhausted. The questions have begun to haunt us. As we see the daily disheartening spectacle of distressed migrant labourers walk, often barefoot, for miles in scorching heat, with families including little children, the heart sinks with guilt and shame.

A few noble souls have stepped out to provide food and other assistance along the tiring journey, but generally they are looked upon as ‘aliens’.

Some western societies have shown more concern and consideration for refugees and migrants from distant lands and unfamiliar cultures. But here we have shown stony indifference to our own, to whom directly or indirectly we owe gratitude for the comforts of our existence.

Govts Can Organise Transport For Big Events Like Kumbh Mela. Why Not Do The Same For Migrant Workers?

Nobody seems to know why Priyanka Gandhi’s compassionate gesture was treated with contempt and insensitivity. Nobody has been told definitively how many migrant labourers have reached home, how many are still on the road, and how many are still waiting for an opportunity to depart from their places of work. Despite the law to protect them and impose obligations on the contractors who recruit them, the system of mandatory registration has failed to provide reliable data. Even with ambiguity about figures, their plight is there for anyone to see, whose COVID-19 protection mask remains below their eyes.

The thousands of State transport buses and trains that have been parked could easily have been used for immediate relief even if the requisition of private vehicles was either felt unnecessary or  impermissible. Vehicles are requisitioned for elections and major social gatherings.

The governments have experience and capacity to make travel and accommodation for events like the Kumbh Mela. Surely the institutional memory of the ‘steel frame’ could not have crashed entirely.

There just is no explanation for a tragedy that is bound to make the whole nation feel guilty, or worse, allow them to take on a studied posture of indifference.

The short-sighted may well believe that this too will pass and that the suffering millions will attribute their misery to fate, and somewhere else, in some other way, submit to their acceptance of being ‘less than equal’ in a constitutional ethos of equality. But there can be no greater mistake than to find refuge in that comfort, for the apparent injustice can bring greater turmoil than coronavirus. The pandemic had to be contained through the lockdown, but the human emotion unleashed will accept no lockdowns.


The Children of Today’s Oppressed Must Get Access to Equal Rights

One is reminded of the popular American film Patton (1970), and the speech that has become a legend. Inspiring the troops before the invasion of Europe, Patton, the eponymous protagonist of this war film, resorted to his favourite vocabulary: “Then there's one thing you men will be able to say when this war is over, and you get back home. Thirty years from now when you're sitting by your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks, 'What did you do in the great World War-II?' You won't have to cough and say, 'Well, your granddaddy shovelled sh*t in Louisiana. No sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say 'Son, your granddaddy rode with the great Third Army, and a son-of-a-goddamned-b**ch named George Patton!”

Similarly for us, cocooned in the safety of our homes that the migrant labourers had built, some years down the line, answers will be sought. The little that we might be doing might come handy then.

But the world must change for that little gesture to have any meaning.

The worker and the small farmer, the daily wage earner, the small shop owner, the street vendor may not earn as much as the upper middle class does, but their children must have similar education as our children (the Right to Education, in letter and spirit), their families must get similar health care (the NHM implemented faithfully), similar employment opportunities (with enhanced MGNREGA ), and most of all, a voice – which is at present so obviously missing.


Those Who Aren’t Covered By Data & Are Most Vulnerable

Migration affects children’s education and adults’ voting rights severely.  Yet, the new education policy seldom finds time and space to address the gap, and the Election Commission repeatedly celebrates its admittedly humongous democratic endeavour without any concern for the migrant voter (of all classes). We will thankfully soon have a portable Ration Card to address physical appetite, but what about voter portability for feeding the democratic appetite?

While there is no official data for the inter-state migrants, the estimate for 2020 made by Professor Amitabh Kundu of Research and Information System for Developing Countries, based on the 2011 Census, NSSO surveys, and economic surveys, shows a total of about 65 million inter-state migrants – and 33 percent of these are workers.

By conservative estimates, 30 percent of them are casual workers, and another 30 percent work on a regular basis, but in the informal sector.

If street vendors, another vulnerable community not captured by data, are added,  one will see an additional 12 to 18 million people who reside in states other than that of their origin – and who are at a risk of losing their livelihoods and incomes.

A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University in 2019 estimates that 29 percent of the population in India’s big cities comprises daily wagers. These are the people who would naturally want to return home. Only a fraction have set out from their place of work.


We Must Think Of Today & Now – Rather Than What The Future Holds For Us

The bottom line is that we need to become an egalitarian society without raising the hackles of people who baulk at socialism. Equality has innumerable dimensions and multiple ways of understanding it, but as Amartya Sen tells us, the difference in equality of outcomes often distorts our understanding of equality of opportunity. Unfortunately that was a brilliant idea proposed by the Sachar Committe that we failed to implement, because people myopically believed that to be a ‘hand-out’ to the minorities. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In throwing out the water we threw away the child of freedom.

But to return to the present: every passing moment is an irreversible step undermining humanity. Should we not think of today and now, rather than what the future has in store for us?

The Congress President’s initiative to gather leaders of all parties in this moment of crisis showed the reservations of the SP and BSP. This politics of capture, of overlapping vote banks, even when humanity sheds tears of sorrow, will go down in history as a permanent shadow.

Leaders more distressed by political wilderness than the isolation and social distancing of the lockdown have reason to celebrate that the media and middle class grasping at communal straws to explain failures have been shown how deprivation and tragedy can unite the working classes. No one has seen Muslim and Hindu workers walking on different sides of the long road home. No one can put labels of faith on the shared misery. Perhaps that is a message for those who are looking for one.

(Salman Khurshid is a designated senior advocate, Congress party leader, and is a former Minister of External Affairs. He tweets @salman7khurshid. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!