Genocide on Road:
Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Bhaskar Majumder

What a pro-active legislature – just I wondered how did the walking Bharat survived over past 50+days post-Corona 2019/2020, I got the message through electronic media that the Centre on 15th May, 2020 asked states and Union Territories (UTs) to provide food and shelter to migrant workers if they were observed walking on roads and railways tracks, and ensure they board special trains to reach their home-state. Of course, the Union Home Secretary personally noticed the movement of migrant workers on roads and railway tracks in different corners of the country.

It is late – it is already genocide. I am not an expert to unearth who sponsored it – it is left to the expert committees, and the pillars of the state. Each day is a nightmare – formal darkness is not awaited – each day I am consuming with a series of cups of morning tea number of deaths on road – these deaths are not nationally mourned for these people dying are strangers to the nation that they served with their blood and sweat, who were accustomed to working and sleeping often under the sky. Getting the time-scope to sleep for 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. was a privilege for most of them that is what I discovered in 1984 while bringing labour (not human beings) by a tattered Bus from Nawada in Bihar to Barasat brick kiln near Calcutta/Kolkata. I am not going to detail the process.

Coming back to the core point, States and UTs were advised earlier that if migrant workers were found to be walking, they should be appropriately counselled, taken to nearby shelters and provided food and water till the time they were facilitated to board the Shramik Special trains or buses to reach their native places, as reported. The Union Home Secretary had been kind enough reporting that the government had already allowed the movement of migrant workers by buses and Shramik Special trains. The responsibility was transferred to all states and UTs to ensure that movement of stranded migrant workers willing to go to their home-states was facilitated.

In spite of the Government’s arrangement of Shramik special trains, the migrant workers preferred trucks even for long-distance to go back to their native places as the trucks drop them close to their villages; the next preferred mode of transport was buses that drop them till the state border. For example, the migrant workers from Bangalore found no alternative but to wait for the special train to reach Kolkata and then they would have to avail train/bus/truck for Coochbihar where they migrated from that is also far off from Kolkata proper.

Even as special Shramik trains and buses are being run by the government to ferry stranded migrant labourers, most of them prefer to travel in vehicles like trucks and tempos to come back home, flouting the social distancing norms. As understood in simple terms, the truck is under self-control that train is not – self-control required for multiple reasons like taking bath from public water sources, sanitation (maidaan) and all that. The truckers charged between Rs 1,500 and Rs 4,500 per person for the journey to Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand depending on the distance to their native places from Mumbai and adjoining places, as reported by the workers. Several of the workers reported that they felt forced to take journey by trucks for they required to fill-in forms, visit local thana (police station), get medical check up and all that prior to getting enlisted for being eligible for Shramik special trains that the aanpor (illiterate) workers tried to avoid. This requires further interpretation if it was workers’ irrationality or their less-dependence on public administration or what.

Undoubtedly police was seen performing its duty on road with a baton in hand – what more it could do? The MHA served Notice at intervals for state governments to follow notwithstanding centre-state standoff on who would shoulder the cost of ferrying the migrant workers from destination to root. The MHA is also of the view that home quarantine is best for persons affected mild by the Corona virus. The Government of India announced the social support for migrant workers – portable food security cards and cost-free food for two months. What more the government at the centre could do? Still then, death of migrant workers was a regular event on road, and some on railway tracks, post 40+ days of being destination-locked. If the legislative-executive left no stone unturned to assist the migrant workers, then why were they dying on road – these were not natural deaths like for ageing or not for the Corona virus or co-morbidity.

My understanding is, the migrant workers locked at the destination waited till Lockdown 2 and then exhausted their means to survive. The means to survive was “roti-roji’’ for them. The thekedars and the business owners took to their heels – the workers came to the roads. They started walking on foot to reach home – Ghar Wapsi. On the Mumbai-Agra Highway 55 at Bhiwandi Phata migrants were found crammed inside a truck going to UP without any number plate – total violation of both law and social distancing. My purpose here is not to repeat enumerating the cruel deaths – it was not for violating traffic rules, not for drunk driving or some such methods. It was overloading of trucks and failure of steering, it was getting crushed on road under the wheels, and it was fatigue and failure of heart.

I have full sympathy for the Judiciary – how could it intervene and advice which state to do what? The state High Court or the Apex Court could have taken suo moto the migrant workers’ issue but probably that would have prolonged the ill-fate of these workers for neither the Judges not the bureaucrats were found walking on road.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. There is also no such precedence in the history of the law authority – walking 1,000 km on road in summer foodless cashless “Ram Varosa’’. Most of the migrant workers had no idea where to go, to get forms and fill-in, to get medically checked-up and all that. Most of them had no idea also of pre-emptive or preventive health care at home for most of UP-Bihar villages have only Jhola-Chap doctors. In absence of science, faith works; or, when faith worked traditionally, where was the need felt for science?

The Case of Rampukar Pandit
Ramkumar, 40, was talking on the phone and sobbing uncontrollably on the Nizamuddin Bridge, New Delhi. His son was ill; he just wanted to go back home in Bihar to see his son. His home was at Bariarpur in Begusarai in Bihar, almost 1,200 km away from where he was sobbing. He could only point out, 'udhar' (there) in between sobs. He worked as a labourer in Najafgarh and, in the absence of any public transport, had started walking home like other migrant workers in India. His journey came to a halt after the police on duty at the bridge disallowed him to move further. Ramkumar, broken and defeated, had been Bridge-locked at the Nizamuddin for three days. His son lost the battle of life before police or public administration could help him reach Bihar.

Obviously no one is responsible for Rampukar’s son’s premature death. If Corona makes families home-locked and migrant workers destination-locked and police law-locked, then who remains to be responsible? So, I accuse myself to be responsible as a teacher serving the nation for years more than Rampukar’s age for his son’s death for I failed to guide the state to chalk out the path for the poor.
Corona-2019/2020 has exposed a system that was termite-affected since centuries.

Apology: I have full faith on the Government of India and state governments.          

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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May 18, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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