IN­DIA’S MI­GRANT WORK­ERS DE­SERVE BET­TER THAN THIS

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - SUNDAY COMMENT - MARK TULLY The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

Last Sun­day, a friend of mine was in a group which was driven on of­fi­cial busi­ness from Delhi to Luc­know. As I have not seen a sin­gle re­port of a long drive and I am locked down in a con­tain­ment area, I asked him to take notes on what he saw. He was not al­lowed to stop and in­ter­view any­one. All along the 416 km route, he saw mi­grant work­ers and their fam­i­lies walk­ing to their homes, most of them were in groups, some alone. The old hob­bled sup­ported by sturdy sticks; some younger men, drenched in sweat, for it was a sunny Sun­day, car­ried heavy bags strapped to their backs; oth­ers car­ried sacks on their heads. Ba­bies and young chil­dren were held in the arms of their par­ents, older chil­dren clasped their par­ents’ hands. At a vil­lage called Bri­jghat in Ha­pur district, the po­lice man­han­dled young cy­clists try­ing to get past a bar­ri­cade. My friend’s ve­hi­cle was stopped at bar­ri­cades and checked by the po­lice each time he crossed the bor­ders be­tween dis­tricts. All dhabas and shops were closed. Drink­ing wa­ter was only pro­vided at two places. At one place, Sikhs had es­tab­lished a lan­gar and were pro­vid­ing food for the walk­ers. Within Luc­know, the po­lice check­ing was in­ten­si­fied but walk­ers were still to be seen on the ring road.

Nearly six weeks af­ter the first lock­down was an­nounced, this was the scene on the road be­tween the cap­i­tal of In­dia and the cap­i­tal of its most pop­u­lous state. Mi­grant work­ers, dis­missed by em­ploy­ers, en­joy­ing no pro­tec­tion from their gov­ern­ments, of­ten thrown out of their ac­com­mo­da­tion by their land­lords, in ur­gent need of food trans­port and money, driven by des­per­a­tion to walk home. It is a scene many have de­scribed as rem­i­nis­cent of the mi­gra­tion at Par­ti­tion. This is the out­come of the largest and one of the strictest lock­downs in the world en­forced dur­ing the coro­n­avirus dis­ease cri­sis — a lock­down that has been widely ap­plauded in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Why has the outcry against this suf­fer­ing in­flicted on men and women who are more than 90% of In­dia’s work­force been so muted?

It is, I be­lieve, in part at least, be­cause those in a po­si­tion to raise their voices have not iden­ti­fied them­selves with those who are suf­fer­ing. This idea came to me from re-read­ing DH Lawrence’s once-con­tro­ver­sial novel Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover dur­ing the lock­down. Set in the in­dus­trial mid­lands of Bri­tain be­tween the two World Wars, the novel is the story of a ti­tled woman’s love for the work­ing-class game­keeper on the es­tate of her hus­band, a mine owner.

One of the themes is the lack of en­gage­ment and em­pa­thy be­tween the up­per-class and the work­ing class as they were known in those days. Dur­ing a row with her hus­band over his at­ti­tude to the ser­vants, Lady Chat­ter­ley says, “I’d have you be aware of peo­ple.” He replies, “And I’d have you a lit­tle less aware of that kind of peo­ple and a lit­tle more aware of the peo­ple who are af­ter all of your own sort and class.” One of the game­keeper’s friends asks Lady Chat­ter­ley, “Do the up­per classes feel any sym­pa­thy with work­ing men as has noth­ing be­fore them, till they drop. Do they sympathise?”

The mi­grant worker cri­sis has shown the rel­e­vance of that ques­tion in to­day’s In­dia. The econ­o­mist Jean Dreze, who has ded­i­cated his life to the study of poverty and in­equal­ity, said on News18, “The lock­down has been like a death sen­tence for the un­der­priv­i­leged”, and main­tained that “the poli­cies made to con­tain the pan­demic have been made or in­flu­enced by a class of peo­ple who pay lit­tle or no at­ten­tion to the con­se­quences for the un­der­priv­i­leged.” Nikhil Dey, who along with Aruna Roy, has worked for many, many years em­pow­er­ing work­ers and farm­ers put this lack of sym­pa­thy even more bluntly. In an NDTV de­bate on the mi­grant cri­sis, he said, “We are not think­ing of them as hu­man be­ings.”

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