COVID-19 and the Exodus of Migrant Labourers

A few months ago, when I saw shows and movies related to pandemic and epidemic on Netflix, I presumed it to be fictional. I believed that this is never going to happen in reality. Then shortly after that, the unthinkable and unbelievable became a reality. This reality turned into a terror very soon for most of the countries with millions of active cases and deaths. It took me more than two weeks to accept this reality.

I am aware that while I am writing this blog, many people around the world have taken their last breath. You and I, dear reader, are privileged to be alive. I can’t thank god enough to see my family and friends safe. Meanwhile, millions of people lost this privilege and my heart aches thinking about what they went through or is going through still. The pain must be unimaginable for the families of COVID-19 patients who don’t get the opportunity to see their family member in their last moments.

In India, from 4th May, the third phase of lockdown was implemented. This created a lot of panic and unrest, especially amongst the migrant labourers. With transportation shut down, millions of them decided to walk for hundreds of kilometres without food, water, and money. Some of them tried to hide under cargo trucks but were caught mid-way. Some of them are being sent home through private buses, public buses, or Shramik (workers) trains.

For the past few days, when I wake up and see my phone, I see news about the death of these migrants by train, by truck or by sickness mid-way and it breaks my heart. This misery and sorrow are beyond words. We failed as humans and as countries to protect our most vulnerable groups.

Many NGOs and individuals have been trying to provide food and shelter to these migrants, including AIF. Further, one of my uncles along with his colleagues supported a group of migrants stuck in a factory in Bhopal, my native place. My family along with two of my neighbours provided sacks of lentil, rice, wheat, some oil and sugar to the needy and food to the migrant groups who were passing by from a by-pass road near my house. Some residents of my colony came forward to provide footwear and clothing to the migrants. Our small-scale help can only help a few people out of the thousands who walk in groups on these roads or are on the trucks.

It is nearly impossible to take care of millions of these migrants without the active support from the union and state government. The government ran a few special trains and buses, but we still couldn’t help them the way we should. Their determination to go home makes me think, “Will they get adequate food, water, money?” “Will they come back once the lockdown is over?” “How will they survive without work back home?” “Will the villagers accept them like before?” and “Will they be safe?”

(A group of migrant workers walking back home)

According to some, the walk of migrant workers towards their home is a march against the stripping of their democratic rights.[1] With their walk, the argument goes, they are defying the system, walking on roads which they are not allowed to tread. The bundles on the heads of those who are walking home are not large or heavy because they only contain clothes and utensils.[2] When they enter their village, everyone will see that this is all they have.[3]

Lockdown induced migration is also affecting the women who stayed in the villages when their husbands migrated for work. Due to financial constraints, or as dutiful wives, mothers, daughters-in-law, they were expected to stay in the village and manage their rural households.[4] A recent study found that “the women-run families are more vulnerable in terms of food insecurity mainly because of the existing gender-inequalities. Social norms prohibit the women from going out, claiming social entitlements, are often unheard or manipulated and sometimes the local authorities make them ineligible from claiming such entitlement as their husbands earn stead incomes.”[5]

A lot is being said about who is responsible for this mass disruption. This debate is not just going on in India, but in the U.S. as well, a country that is amongst the worst hit. While some governments are blaming one another, the more pressing question for me is: how can we get out of this crisis while avoiding any more deaths and protecting our most vulnerable groups? What duty do we have to support our fellow human beings?

If we all come forward to help the affected groups in our own ways, we will be able to reduce their sufferings by a substantial level. This pandemic is a call for humanity. We can make financial contributions to different organizations. At a personal level, I have been trying to reduce the suffering of these people with the help of my family and neighbours. I also contributed some amount to assist my host organization – Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, in distributing essential supplies to the people living in the remote areas of these villages. These villages are not easily accessible as they are situated in hilly areas. Travel restriction, especially of public transportation, further added to their grievances. As an AIF Fellow, I’ve also joined my cohort to support AIF’s COVID-19 response by organizing a series of awareness and fundraising events which have made a tangible impact on the ground. We have been doing Facebook livestreams, Instagram lives, and email campaigns to raise funds for these vulnerable groups. This is helping AIF provide immediate relief by distributing masks and medical equipment to frontline healthcare workers and government hospitals, and providing food rations and hygiene kits for migrant communities.

There is something that each of us can do and create impact across borders!


References:

[1] Kumar, Ravish. “We, Left Behind in Cities, Are Migrants, Not Them.” NDTV, 5 May 2020. https://www.ndtv.com/blog/we-left-behind-in-cities-are-migrants-not-them-by-ravish-kumar-2223524.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Chetan Choithani, “What Happens to the Wives of Male Migrant Workers, Who Run Entire Households in Villages?”The Wire,  1 April, 2020. https://thewire.in/women/lockdown-migrant-workers-wives.

[4] Chetan Choithani, “Gendered livelihoods: migrating men, left-behind women and household food security in India, Gender, Place and Culture, Nov 11 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2019.1681366.

[5] Supra 1.

Ayushi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is assessing the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 with respect to the role played by the Protection officers in the Kangra district and the Himachal Pradesh state government. Ayushi completed her B.Com LL.B. (Hons.) in 2019. She believes that the world would be a happier place to live in if we learned to treat all living beings with humanity and basic dignity, irrespective of our biological and psychological differences, belief systems, and distinct genetic makeup. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, she will be working with issues related to female education and child marriage. She wishes to help the women and the LGBTQIA+ in utilizing their innate power and channelizing that energy in breaking societal chains, gaining inner liberty, and happiness. In order to educate herself with the realities, she studied subjects such as law and social transformation, liberty, equality and justice, and completed a credit course on comparative human rights. She interned at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and at the Centre for Civil Society under Fellowship91 in New Delhi, and the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru. She visited villages in Madhya Pradesh to understand the difficulties faced due to water scarcity. She enjoys writing blogs and research papers and has written on several issues related to drug usage as a criminal justice problem or a health problem, lawyers becoming casualties of their profession, homosexual marriages, sin taxation analyzing the taxes payable by prostitutes in India, and hate speech and freedom of speech and expression. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, singing, writing poems, and reading books.

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