How should India solve the problems of 40 million migrants as those in armchairs feed off their suffering?
When the pandemic broke, the government was suddenly left to solve the collective misery of roughly 40 million such 'useful invisibles', internal migrant workers who leave home to work in another state, city, or district
The guard sits hunched in his bony chair for hours, face aglow in the light from his cheap cellphone. Even before COVID-19 sank its teeth into his life, he had enough worries.
His employers would not release a part of his pitiable salary to prevent him from suddenly leaving. His landlord would not pass on the benefits of electricity and water subsidies. Most residents or policemen would not treat him with respect.
He is, along with millions, an orphan of the financial system with no provident fund, gratuity or medical insurance.
When the pandemic broke, the government was suddenly left to solve the collective misery of roughly 40 million such 'useful invisibles', internal migrant workers who leave home to work in another state, city, or district.
Much has been said and written lately about the plight of migrant workers. A handful of detractors of Prime Minister Narendra Modi watched in dismay as India managed to keep cases and casualties low despite its 1.3 billion population and crumbling healthcare system.
But then the migrant crisis broke out and thousands were seen walking back home for miles. The media saw a flood of opinion on how Modi has failed the poor, works only for the rich, and how the Vande Bharat Mission of rescuing stranded Indians from abroad is an upper-class, hypernationalistic hoax.
None of them have a solution. Neither Rahul Gandhi nor any other Opposition leader has spelt out what they would have done differently.
Which makes it important to examine what the Centre has done on the migrant workers issue.
When containment comes first
Hit by a pandemic that paralysed the world in just two months, the government had to deal with three immediate concerns regarding India's massive migrant workforce: Containment, livelihood/financial help, and safe return home.
What makes this situation far more complex is that these priorities clash. It would have been impossible to contain the disease without immediately stopping all mass transport. So, safe return got elusive.
It was impossible to not affect livelihoods after bringing severe containment measures. One couldn't save lives and livelihoods.
In spite of a largely stringent lockdown, each breach — whether the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi or Sikh pilgrims who returned to Punjab from Nanded's Hazur Sahib — has cost lives by the hundreds.
So, here are some questions.
Could the Centre have decided to run trains and buses early on?
Would social distancing have been possible with overflowing bus terminuses and train stations?
Have states done enough to ensure that migrants stay?
When money matters most
The Modi government was among the quickest to announce and start disbursing a COVID-19 package for the poor and migrants.
Former National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) chief AP Hota has said that India's direct benefit transfer system has been more efficient than the US' system. In April, 40 crore Aadhaar-enabled payments had been made, he said, double the figure in normal times.
Around 39 crore poor people have received Rs 34,800 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKP).
As of May, Rs 10,025 crore has been disbursed to 20.05 crore women Jan Dhan account holders as first instalment and Rs 2,785 crore transferred to 5.57 crore women Jan Dhan account holders in second instalment, show finance ministry figures.
Rs 16,394 crore has been transferred to 8.19 crore people under PM-KISAN scheme. Around 2.20 crore construction workers have got Rs 3,492.57 crore.
More than 2.82 crore old age persons, widows and disabled persons have got pension, and 44.97 lakh employees got 24 percent Employee Provident Fund contribution.
In just April, 30.16 lakh metric tonnes — think 1.83 lakh fully loaded trucks — of food grains have been distributed to 60.33 crore people in 36 states.
Around 4.82 crore households received free cylinders under Ujjwala Yojana, and 5.97 crore man-days of work generated this financial year.
Train stops here again
On the government's part, there have been gaps and some knee-jerk responses. A decisive policy on waiving fares for migrants would have made lives easier and created less controversy. The Karnataka government calling off trains after a meeting with builders to stop labourers from travelling was egregious. Trains resumed after nationwide outrage, but the damage was done.
But states like Maharashtra must share blame in the lack of coordination on bearing a small fraction of the ticket cost, with the Centre offering 85 percent.
The railways has been running 283 Shramik Special trains for migrants. Passengers are given free meals and water, social distancing is observed, officials claim. Around 1,200 passengers travel in these special trains, and they are scanned before boarding.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Railways tweeted that the passenger trains will slowly start rolling again from Tuesday. The workers' trains will continue running.
Vande Bharat nationalism of rich?
A narrative is being set about flights bringing in stranded upper- and middle-class Indians from abroad amid nationalistic fanfare while poor workers suffer.
First, rescuing stranded Indians abroad and helping internal migrants are not mutually exclusive.
Second, a large number of poor Indians go to West Asia and other countries to work. They are not exactly privileged flyers.
Third, there is considerable pressure on India from foreign nations to take home our own.
And fourth, a show of national pride in getting our citizens back from far-flung parts in not bad. A nation functions on shared symbols, myths, stories. From the US to Europe and Japan to China, fiery and committed nationalism has inspired their leap into the league of developed countries.
Those who mock India's new nationalism do not wish to see this nation in that league.
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau says curbs easing to go ahead despite expected surge in cases after holiday, arguing city has strong immunity levels to combat virus
It is expected that the Lunar New Year holiday travel rush – known as Chunyun – can drive a new wave of infections in China, especially in its vulnerable countryside. Last week, Xi Jinping also acknowledged concerns about a COVID-19 spike in rural China
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had suggested the emergency phase of the pandemic is not over, pointing to surging numbers of deaths and warning that the global response to the crisis 'remains hobbled'