Skip to main content

Betrayed? Migrants walking towards Rajasthan 'don’t count' in design of New India

Migrants resting along the Gujarat-Rajasthan highway
By Gagan Sethi*
The other day some of us decided to go along the ghostlike highway that connects Ahmedabad with Rajasthan border. It was less than four hours ride from the Chiloda Circle to Shamlaji (on the Ahmedabad to Udaipur super highway). Starting at 9:30 am, we returned at 4 pm, interacting with several of the migrants who were moving in groups ranging from two to 25.
In all, we estimated later, they were around 450 of them; 70% of them were heading to different Uttar Pradesh districts, and the rest to Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. Many of them were scared of talking, as they identified any vehicle that passed by as police surveillance van. However, they would open up after we would give them some food and water.
None had plan their trip. All daily/contract wagers, they had not received their April entitlements except ration . They just took their haversack, started walking, not even knowing the route, sometimes getting into fields near police check posts. At 43-44 degrees temperature and covering 35-40 km a day, they appeared to be moving mindlessly, hoping some day they would reach home. Walking in such despair is the way to be hopeful. Among them there were young boys and women, some with children.
Daily unskilled wage workers, they told us that they worked at metro rail sites in Ahmedabad, while others said, they were employed as casual labourers at small or medium scale enterprises -- like saree dyeing units. Most of them would start walking in the wee hours.
After 2 pm, they would huddle under a culvert of a large over-bridge being, currently being built on the six lane highway, so that Gujarat could vibrate even more. They would again walk for another few hours in the evening.
As we crossed the Ahmedabad-Udaipur railway crossing, we saw hordes of them walking along rail track -- the reason being, very few know the routes they were taking and this was a predictable route notwithstanding that walking along a railway track is far more difficult but allows you to also escape the police patrolling on the roads. The Google map technology, which allows us to locate our passages, is available only on smart phones, and that is the privilege of the few. The rest still operate with old phones.
Talking of the phones, there was this desperate need to recharge them at different points, which surely isn’t available. Indeed, perhaps it would sound hollow if someone even thinks of trying and procuring solar mobile chargers for them -- of course Chinese made -- costing Rs 300 to 400, “killing” Indian markets. I don’t understand what this means for the Swadesh argument but at this moment a Chinese solar charger can be huge support.
As we spoke to them, we could see anger in their eyes, especially when a jeep passed by to give food and water, but refusing to give lift to the next stop. Most of them said they had no other means to survive. One of them even said, once back to their “vatan” (home) they would at least be given burial or cremation.
Some walked with rucksacks, while others hung rexine bags or “thelas” on their shoulders and a water bottle in the hand. A few dragged their bags on the two wheels attached beneath their bag. Many had already developed swollen feet. Rubber slippers they wore had come to a breaking point. They were repaired with pins and caused even more agony.

We had ordered 500 chappals for distribution, the multi purpose gamcha which we also see on TV but these will prove insufficient. I just couldn’t reconcile as to what compulsion made these people take the suicidal step of walking 1,200 to 1,800 km.
Most of them said they had no money to pay for the train fare (approximately Rs 700), and also that the Shramik Express trains for the next 15 days were booked, and that they wouldn’t be able to survive for so long. Hence, they decided to begin walking all the way to UP, Bihar, Jharkhand. 
The irony was that they were walking past the grand concrete buildings all along the empty ghostlike route, most of which they and their ilk had constructed. Today those edifices look ugly in the circumstances, reminding me of the Brutalist architecture. On way I counted at least eight international schools with imposing buildings advertising world class education for children. There were at least 50 temples with grandiose architecture, at least eight colleges. What a visual contradiction of the gross inequality perpetuated by neo-liberal economics! 
The irony was, they were walking past grand concrete buildings along the ghostlike route, most of which they and their ilk had constructed
The last lockdown, I thought, was the last straw for the migrants, especially from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, who had no resources to survive in their “karmabhumi.” So it was better to die en route while returning their janambhumi, is what some of them told us.
Surely, it reflected the inability of the in-migrant states to deal with the humongous tragedy.
Seeking necessary permissions, along with my colleagues I decided to take this route after watching NDTV visuals of migrant workers walking home from Mumbai and Delhi. Almost impulsively, I phoned up Roshini of Yuva and Amitabh of Oxfam if they could at least run food and water distribution on wheels. It occurred to me: Closer home, migrants were walking from Ahmedabad, towards Rajasthan.
On my return, I realised that food and water takes care of just four hours of their months of ordeal. I wondered if we could put up outposts every 40 km in coordination authorities and community groups. Each of these outposts would provide chappals, medicines, clothes for women in place of sanitary napkins (which they don’t find comfortable), solar mobile chargers, maps and guidance to those who don’t know the routes.
From the next days we have been meeting and discussing with district collectors on the routes requesting to collaborate. We offered to run shuttle bus service on the 100 km route at our cost. They seemed scared that if all this gets announced they won’t be able to handle the crowd, which may be true, they also said that if we legitimise this and Rajasthan doesn’t accept them then the Collector Aravalli will have to bear the brunt.
Among the suggestions we put forward included negotiating with private bus owners to help these migrants reach their destination. In Gujarat there are at least eight such routes where countless (an estimated over 50 lakh) migrants are on the move.
Those who are waiting at the starting points across the state (in cities like Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Vadodara etc.) would need well-designed Shramik Bhavans. Private and public residential schools, hostels, religious infrastructure could be made available and opened with all amenities, including creches and adequate medical facilities with NGO help.
We found both the collectors sensitive and willing to open such Bhavans or shelter homes requesting civil society to run them. But they can’t allow shuttle buses to operate.
Centralised rules in disaster management are generic and don’t lend themselves to solution finding. My previous mantra in disaster mitigation has been Listen, Trust, Empower, Decentralise. Communities, administrative leadership and civil society can easily sort this out 100 km by 100 km, rather than every 15 days wait for one man from the pulpit to tell you how to proceed for the fortnight.
While I write this, food and water distribution goes into the sixth day and we struggle to find a solution, which is within the rules, yet can lessen the ordeal of those who walk because, as one in the groups told us, “We waited based on a promise of Rajkot authorities for 15 days in a shelter home with subhuman conditions but nothing happened. Why should we trust the Government?”
Surely, civil society leaders can’t discuss this in webinars and WhatsApp, but will have to lead from the front. One needs to provide hope and regain trust of Indians who have been betrayed because they don’t count in the design of New India, where economic progress is the only driving policy framework.
---
*Chair, Janvikas, Ahmedabad

Comments

TRENDING

Nirma varsity demand for higher fees 'illegal', violates Article 14: Letter to Gujarat HC

Counterview Desk
Students of Gujarat’s top private institute, Nirma University, situated in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in a letter to the Chief Justice the state High Court, have complained that the authorities are demanding “full fees” from students, without taking into account the “disproportionate impact” the lockdown has on the livelihood of students and families.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

By Our Representative
Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book, "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Vulnerable to Covid-19, sharp rise in murder of Indian journalists during pandemic

By Nava Thakuria*
Vulnerability of working journalists in India is no way an alien issue as the populous country loses a number of working journalists to assailants as also medical emergencies. Even though there was only one casualty in the Indian media fraternity during the first half of 2020, who was targeted for journalistic work, India has begun witnessing an alarming number of media casualties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Undoing 'past wrong' at Ayodhya: Will Modi govt hand over Puri temple to Buddhists?

By Shamsul Islam*
While laying the foundation of Ram Janmabhoomi Temple at Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, with the get-up of a prosperous Hindu sage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that wait of Hindus of the world for centuries was over, as Lord Ram’s birthplace has been finally liberated from numerous attempts to destroy it.

Govt 'assures' Gujarat HC no action against MBBS students defying corona sahayak order

By Our Representative
The Gujarat government has assured the High Court that no action would be taken against Part-I and Part-II MBBS students of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC)-controlled NHL Medical College and LG Hospital and Medical College. The assurance follows the direction by Justice SH Vora to the State government not to prosecute or initiate action against the students who were defying the college authorities’ order to work as corona sahayaks (helpers).

Ex-official: Murmu, appointed as CAG, will 'surely' perform shradh of the institution

Counterview Desk
A former senior official of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Shantanu Basu, in a Facebook comment in the wake of the appointment of GC Murmu, a Gujarat IAS cadre official of the 1985, has raised doubts about the independence of CAG following the Government of India move.

Renounced US citizenship to serve workers, tribals, Sudha Bharadwaj 'odiously' in jail

By Atul, Sandeep Pandey*
Professor Sudha Bharadwaj has been in jail since August 2018. She was taken into police custody on August 26, 2018 on suspicion of being involved in Maoist terror activities after Republic TV claimed that she had allegedly written a letter to Maoists and was conspiring to create public disorder and unrest in India.

Plant organic, eat fresh: Emlen Bage's journey from migrant labour to agri-entrepreneur

By Chandrashekar and Kriti*
Who is a farmer? Type this question in the google search and check out the images? You can see men thronging the screen. This is the popular perception around the globe. Well one can understand how difficult it would be for a woman to defy this perception.

High youth unemployment: India 'fails' to take advantage of demographic dividend

By Varun Kumar
As coronavirus pandemic continues amplifying challenges among youth with regard to employment opportunities, government policies have further resulted in economic slowdown, leading to mass unemployment and loss jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation report “Covid-19 and the World of Work” (May 27, 2020), around 94 percent of the world’s workers are living in countries with some sort of workplace closure measures in place.