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Migrant exodus, a human tragedy

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

Yes. Yes. Yes. The Migrant Exodus is heart rending. To see men, women and children walk miles across borders and face the forces of nature, is not a sight to behold. Particularly, young children trundling along with their elders barefoot, is excruciating to even see. Several have died from exhaustion. Some lost their lives while sleeping on railway tracks over run by trains. How cruel could it get? No one in his right senses would grudge the migrants their agony and discomfort. It is a terrible tragedy that Covid-19 has brought in its wake.

The Central and State Governments have been caught napping, by the sudden Exodus and they are therefore struggling to play catch up. Inevitably, the State is facing serious criticism that the original National Lockdown was announced suddenly and caught the migrants off guard. The suggestion is that if only the State had announced a planned schedule, offering time and space to the migrants to take the call, to stay put or move out to their homes, the tragedy could/would have been averted.

It is all very well to say so in hind sight with a 2020 vision. But it was neither practical nor feasible nor would it have avoided the tragedy. The unfolding tragedy would have still have played out anyway. This is part of the ‘deathly dance and its tragic damages’ as an academician wrote about the 1918-20 Spanish Flu. Lest you jump upon me, one is not even remotely suggesting that we ought to accept the death, destruction and devastation, as part of life’s journey and move on. No. No. No.

Let us assume that the State had locked down a week, hence the date of announcement with a timeline to adjust. Affording time for the migrants to shift bases. It would have been a worse and terrifying logistics nightmare. We have 4 crores migrants at work, at any point of time. They travel the distances from Manipur to Meghalaya and Allahabad to Kanpur to Dhanbad to Raipur and where not. No matter even if all the trains were offered for the service and the buses and lorries in attendance, one cannot imagine the calamitous chaos it would have unleashed. Social distancing would have gone for a toss and the Pandemic would have spread its tentacles far denser and wider and well before its due date. We would have been in far worse mess than we are today in.

Ideally, the migrants ought to have been cared for where they were. One can identify specific textile and garment units in Tiruppur where the employers were caring and comforting. They continued housing the employees from Orissa and Bihar and fed them with salaries as well, during the initial 3 week shut down. One can multiply such instances of benevolent employers.

Now, the government has eased the closures, the factories are stirring back with no discomfort, as the workforce is pampered and available. Just as these model employers took good care of their migrant workmen, the State also should have offered space and support to them.

For instance Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister, sincerely and literally begged the migrant labourers to stay put and he promised to lodge them safe, secure and be well fed. The migrants did not heed the call.

Surely, one is not blaming the migrants. With no certainty of the time line, as to how long this lockdown will continue, when the viral curve would be flattened and when normalcy would return, the desperation of migrants to get back home, no matter they may have to starve, was understandable. One cannot be crudely unempathetic to attribute any other intent to them. You and I may have also behaved similarly, or possibly worse.

It would therefore be unfair and unjust to blame the State for the tragedy that Migrant Exodus is proving to be. No matter how well they had planned, the tragedy was bound to happen. There was no one fool proof method to be planned. The scale of the Coronavirus impact was so humongous. If 213 countries are in its leash and the leader of the free world is struggling to disrupt the disruption, the Indian experience is not unnatural at all. It is not a man made disaster as is sought to be portrayed for political slants. It a natural disaster well beyond the ken of Homo sapiens and nature has shown us, who is the boss.

Instead of carping and complaining with the Centre and States for their ‘unplanned’ declaration of National Lockdowns, we would do well to explore solutions, to not repeat the same, if and when there is a second wave, as is threatened. State must get up and running to construct Migrant Homes, as migrant movement is real and it is hugely helpful as a booster to our economic engine. Infrastructure to house the migrants must become a mandatory need. Yes, even then there is no guarantee that Migrants would stick to the workplace and not be inclined to move, as Home is where his heart would be, more so in times of such a crisis. At least, we may be better prepared than now. It is time for policy makers to form an expert committee to analyse the Migrant Exodus issue threadbare and come up with a statutory and regulatory framework for a permanent structure in place akin to the Disaster Management Act. That is the way to go. And be deriding each other, when we need to be helping each other out. Please.

The world we live in today is a different place as it is in the throes of a Pandemic. The world after the Pandemic May be even more different and unrecognizable from today. Each one of us may have to pivot from our present, private, social and economic ways.

The virus that escaped from a Wuhan wet market has not only slayed lives in lakhs, it has maimed them and devastated the economies too. There has been nothing akin to this ever. Not like the Bubonic Plague, Black Death, Deep Depression, World Wars, sub prime mortgage crisis, the SARS, H1N1, MERS, or the likes of it. Covid-19 is unlike anything the world has seen or experienced. The grip is hard and sure and not easing any time soon. The threat of second and third waves or continuing waves until a Vaccine is discovered is real and not imagined.

In such a bleak and black scenario, to play blame game for Migrant Exodus is unfair, unjust and unrealistic. No matter the crafty and clever planning we were capable of, the tragedy was bound to play out. The form, time and place would have been different. It is singularly sad and unfortunate that the hapless migrants were caught in the web, for no fault of theirs, in the wake of nature’s fury. Let us try to come up with their rescue with food, shelter and medical support wherever we can, as the Exodus is on, while we pray for their wellbeing, safety and travel back home.

Criticism be damned at this hour of crisis as the unprecedented nature of the crisis would have overwhelmed even the richest and best placed nations, as it has. Our job would be not to lurch the lot of Migrants at this hour of crisis and be by them as well as we can as We The People.

(Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan- Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

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