Indian migrant workers
Image Credit: AFP

There are perhaps only a dozen odd countries on the planet — including Turkmenistan and Nauru — which recorded zero deaths due to coronavirus. Another 25 countries including Bhutan and Cambodia have negligible Covid-19 infections.

India — like many other nations — was not so lucky. More than one crore (10.2 million) Indians got infected by the coronavirus. Around 1,48,000 Indians have died, so far.

Needless to say if there is one lesson Indians understand it is this: In the event of Mahamari (pandemic), survival of self and the family is important.

In all Indian languages we have rich material that talks about various pandemics and its heart-wrenching tales of tension between humans and nature.

The complete lockdown of 2020 is behind us, but like elsewhere, 2020 is going to be an unholy number in India.

More by Sheela Bhatt

And, by all accounts, 2021 will be on the fast-forward. In India there is a lot at stake. The most important issue in India right now is how to revive the economy and give jobs to millions. Thus far, there is no significant success, and all eyes are on the Union Budget of 2021-22. India’s foremost challenge in 2021 will be this: how fast to get back the 8% annual growth.

A few things work in India’s favour. The resilient nature of Indians, global buyers’ search for alternatives and demand for the wider selection for the investment destinations is helping the country get the Foreign institutional investors (FIIs) even during the Covid times.

The economy is slowly coming back on the track but the management of equitable distribution of wealth and the job market remains Modi government’s weakest link.

March of the millions

During the height of the pandemic when Prime Minister Modi announced total lockdown to avoid the spread of the deadly coronavirus, millions of migrants marched to their homes. Those images will remain seared in public consciousness for a long time.

Personally, I felt proud for those Indians who told me during interviews, while they walked home, that they are leaving the cities, defying the government’s orders, because in times of pandemic they wanted to be with their immediate families — in their native places where they said they felt the most secure and safe.

No amount of freebies from the government or the real possibility of losing jobs stopped them from walking, not even police barricades or the complete absence of the transport systems.

One thing is for sure: ordinary Indians are both sentimental and mature. The march of the migrant workers during the pandemic was a reflection of two things — their commitment to family and ultimately their own survival instinct. The family system triumphed over material security.

Soon after the prime minister’s announcement of the lockdown I met many migrants who were passing through Delhi and Agra.

In the times of extraordinary crisis, they told me, one must opt for emotional security and emotional support system. This sounds simple but that’s what makes India different.

The lessons of 2020

The important lesson of 2020 was this resilience. Migrants in India’s cities and towns operate in their own well-defined sociocultural world. It is in this milieu where ordinary men and women’s understanding of life tells them that when a person is face to face with huge uncertainties (imagine those empty marketplaces and roads) it is better to be with the loved-ones.

No section of the Epidemic Disease Act or clauses of the Disaster Management Act can be a deterrent for an Indian who is craving to be with the family.

Their walking for hundreds of miles was a reflection of the prevalent emotional insecurity in urban India where people are increasingly self-centred. Their exit from cities demonstrated the human fighting spirit against nature.

Those hundreds of thousands of Indians’ long walk surely defied the government’s order, but it was also the demonstration of tremendous capacity the Indians have to stand up to unsurmountable challenges.

The migrants broke law to uphold their family dharma. Their dharma to uphold their basic values. To be with their own people in times of supreme crisis. When you face a dark future love is the only light. Those who walked knew it in their hearts.

They understood faster than anyone that the effects of Covid-19 would be felt at several levels. Mahamari was the word synonymous with death in their vocabulary. They wanted to get into the familiar and caring ecosystem that they had left behind to make money.

They wanted to be in their emotional abode even if it meant walking for thousands of kilometres because Covid stories from Britain, Italy and US reminded them how money was powerless in front of an invisible foe. Many reporters noted that these migrants were not critising the government. They may have preferred transportation facilities but they understood just one word. Mahamari.

One simple lesson of life learnt after interviewing several Indian migrants: Roots matter and it is where you ultimately return.

BIO Sheela Bhatt
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