Masses of migrant workers have been reduced to destitution and starvation by the Great Lockdown. We must act in their favour.
It was the dark before dawn on Labour Day. The highway was empty for miles. Other than the steadily moving silhouettes in a single file ahead of me. Five young men, each with a backpack. I hate slowing or pausing during a run. But where will I run to, if I run away from a lone little girl searching for food, or two kids pushing a cartful of red chillies, or a silent procession fleeing my city. So, I started walking with them.
They were walking home. One to Chhattisgarh, one to Odisha, two to Jharkhand, and one to Bihar. These are long walks, from the outskirts of Bangalore. Hearing of the changed lockdown conditions allowing migrant workers to return home, they started. Not waiting for special trains to start, nor for their states to send buses, or for confirmation that the interstate borders were indeed open. Waiting, anymore, was unbearable. “Mazdoor hain, bhikhaari nahni, sir; bhookh se ladna hai toh gaon me ladenge, apnon ke saath, iss ajab shehar mein nahin" (we are labourers, not beggars, sir; if we must battle hunger, we will do it in our village, along with our own people, not in this strange city).
All of 23 or 24, they have not been back home for 3-4 years. But this city is not theirs. Living on alms, begging, going hungry, all forced upon them in turn, has clarified where they belong. “Aisa kyon kiya hamaare saath, sir?" (why was this done to us, sir?) There is no answer to that, since it cuts to the core of our systemic ineptitude and collective moral failure.
So, I asked for their names. Waman, William, Mohabbat, Harold, and Hindustani. A paean to India, those names together; the last—a conclusion—which I asked him to repeat. “Hindustani, hum Hindustani hain, sir" (Hindustani, I am Hindustani, sir). With first light, we parted ways. They walked home, and I ran with their questions.
Questions that have been asked many times every day of me for the past few weeks. Not that those asking expected an answer. But they had to ask, finding me amid them, because clearly, I was not battling hunger.
In early April, we estimated that there were 1.4 million people in Bangalore driven to the verge of hunger by the lockdown. All daily wage earners of some kind, with no savings, and no access to the public distribution system. We started supporting food for these people from the first week of April. Over the past 45 days, the numbers we are supporting have grown to over 700,000. Some directly from our own large campus kitchens, and the rest through financial support to over 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizen groups. We estimate that other organizations and the state government have been supporting another 400,000 people.
Till I started going out to see how all this was happening, my imagination fell short of the complexity. The vastness of the supply chain is unsurprising, given the scale of the operation. Including the daily sourcing of tonnes of rice, dal, salt, oil, and more. Unloading, sorting, cooking or repacking them in kits, and then onwards for distribution. All this has been developed on the fly, by the ingenuity and teamwork of hundreds of members of the NGOs and volunteers. Schools, colleges, marriage halls, and office spaces have been converted into warehouses and “ration-kit" factories.
Distribution is a different order of challenge. Merely delivering tonnes of material to the shanties and blue-tarp huts, whose existence this silicon valley is unaware of, is the first hurdle. How does one know how many ration-kits to take to a place, with not even a hint of any enumeration of residents? When the consignment reaches there, how can the crowd be controlled? These are people who haven’t had a square meal for days, and dread the uncertain immediate future. All this enacted in slushy narrow lanes, on garbage heaps, or sinking construction sites. And then the lockdown is extended, so we start all over again.
Enforced loss of livelihoods, with no end in sight, is a sure-fire formula to eviscerate the sense of agency among people and demolish their identity. Stranded in hunger, their condition is exacerbated by discrimination in the distribution of aid and delivery of healthcare services—on every conceivable dimension of prejudice possible—by too many local politicians and some NGOs. People from outside the state, Muslims, those from the Northeast, Dalits, transgenders, voters of other parties, and others have all borne the brunt of this, though many NGOs, government officers and even politicians have done everything possible to stop this criminal misconduct and compensate for it.
The numbers confronting starvation have risen every day. The initial 1.4 million were mostly construction workers, ragpickers, cobblers and others already in or near poverty. With no income for over 40 days, the self-employed with small businesses, or informally employed, many of whom would be firmly in the lower middle class, have been dragged to virtual poverty: from the plumber, maid and security guard to the barber, shoe shop owner and auto-driver. I have encountered more such people each passing day, understandably ashamed of hunting for food. The number on the verge of hunger in Bangalore may well have risen to twice our initial estimate. The rest of the country is in no different state.
There are stories aplenty of heroism and sacrifice, both individual and collective, on all fronts, all deserving of this nation’s gratitude. These are but a thin veil on the failure of our democracy and society. We have brazenly extracted the life and liberty of the weakest and poorest as the price for combating the pandemic. And we are yet only at the beginning of our battle with the scourge.
“How did you get your name?" I asked Hindustani. “My great-grandfather named me; he and many people of my village went to jail in 1942. He wanted us to remember what they fought for." It is time we remember.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.
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