The unprecedented but extremely warranted, 21-day nationwide ‘lockdown’ was imposed, causing a monumental human tragedy to stop Coronavirus spreading its tentacles in India at lightning speed. Billion plus people remain in forced confinement in their homes; but tens of thousands of migrant workers are out on the streets, walking, cycling or hopping on to any motorized vehicle they can climb on to – in a desperate bid to reach their native places, to be with their families during the unforeseen distress. Everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, young or old, has had to pay a price, irrespective of whether or not s/he has been infected with Covid 19 or not. But it is the poor, as always, who have taken the hardest hit.
There are pregnant women among them. This is the period when women are advised not to do hard work, shun stress and take plenty of rest. But these women had already trekked, carrying the baby growing within, for seven kilometers and still had plenty to cover! We saw over 50, 000 people converged at places in their desperate efforts to get out of the Big City and reach the safety of their village homes at any cost, putting their lives on the line and making a mockery of the ‘lockdown’ restrictions in the process.
Hundreds and even thousands of people found walking in a file, their implements on their shoulders, hundreds of kilometers back home in the absence of any form of transport. Many had already covered over a 100 km in reaching Bhubaneswar and were still only half way through their journey! With the ban on inter-state and even inter-district migration kicking immediately, one doubt if they would be able to cross the borders of any district, forget reaching his village! The sheer helplessness of not being able to do anything more than sounding out the relevant government authorities haunts us.
It is obvious that neither the Union nor the State governments had factored in this massive segment of the population and the possibility of them seeking to flee their place of work in panic or out of helplessness while hastily drawing up their plans to meet the unprecedented global emergency. The massive gathering seen in Delhi and the several kilometer-long queues of labourers walking back to their homes were testimony not just to the failure of the two governments but to our collective failure as a nation to provide succor – and more importantly assurance, that they and their families back home will be looked after well during this whole period of crisis. Secondly, the failure and inhuman attitude of the employers of these farm and non-farm labourers is certainly deplorable; as they failed to assure them food and shelter as before.
We, while watching the miseries of these people in television sitting at our homes question each other, “When will these god-forsaken people learn? Can’t they see the danger they are posing to themselves, their families back home and society at large in doing so? Why can’t they just stay put?” No one gives a reply as we are never going to take the trouble. We haven’t really given them much of choice. Most of them have already run out or are on the verge of running out of money and are staring at starvation in the days ahead. It is not that they are not aware about the perils of fleeing at this juncture. But it’s a classic ‘Devil and Deep Sea’ choice for them. When they don’t have two square meals a day or a roof over heads, sanitizers, masks and the like, they are rather forced to think, “If we have to die anyway, we would rather die at home, in the presence of our family. What’s the point in dying without food or due to the disease in this heartless, unfriendly foreign land?”
There is no doubt that they need to be stopped where they are. The risk of a mass exodus on such a scale would pose to our collective and extremely difficult fight against the all-conquering virus is too great and simply not worth taking. But the challenge is to find a humane way of doing it and not by wielding the baton. Their families back home need to be provided succor and assured about the safety, security and well-being of their near and dear ones in the cities too. Needless to say, it’s an enormous challenge for any government.
The challenge for the Odisha government is even greater than that of some other states. As one of the states with a huge outgo of itinerant/migrant workers, estimated to be around four million – the others being Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and UP – it would be a tough task for Odisha, already struggling with the huge task of checking the spread of the pandemic, to look after the well-being of its people stranded in other states. The mere planning, assurances, fund allocation seldom percolates down, unless properly monitored.
The enormity of the pandemic challenge has compelled various arms of the polity to temporarily redrawing of the equations. The Opposition has already played its part by refraining from lashing out at the government day in and day out. And now, it is the turn of the rest of us, including the media, to keep our daggers on hold for now and do our bit by assisting government efforts to meet the enormous challenge. That’s the call of the time. Fault-finding can wait for a more opportune time.
The police require something else; exemplary calm, determination and commitment to duty, compassion and restraint from public officials, rising above their pre-Corona high-handedness. The idea is to help the people deal with an unprecedented situation with enormous patience, persistence and empathy. As for the people, they need to understand that these are not ordinary times and the unprecedented situation requires them to keep normal life is suspended animation for now, do their bit, make the required sacrifices and lend their full and unstinted cooperation to the Medical Staff, Police, service providers, journalists and officials, the soldiers of the emerged war like situation, in the collective fight against the menace.