Hungry, thirsty and exhausted from walking long distances, many of India’s poor migrant workers are collapsing on their way back to villages. As India extends the COVID-19 lockdown till May 31, people have taken to social media with the hashtag #MigrantLivesMatter, to discuss the humanitarian crisis that looms large over the country.
Yesterday, Indian politician Shashi Tharoor took to Twitter, to post a video clip that showed poor migrant workers collapsed on the ground, their children lay crying beside them. He tweeted that there was no one to pay heed to the children’s plight.
Some said the video showed an accident that had taken place recently, when trucks carrying migrant labourers overturned on a highway, killing and injuring passengers.
Millions of Indian migrant workers who left remote villages, to work for daily wages in urban cities, lost their jobs as the pandemic struck and the lockdown began on March 24. With no money left, to buy food for families, many of them head back on foot, over hundreds of kilometers.
Even when trains were announced late in April, the cost of tickets, low frequency and seat availability were an issue, so some decided to cycle back, or pay truck drivers huge amounts of money for a small place to sit, in packed vehicles that would take them further on their route.
Today, tweeps shared another video of a truck that overturned in Bihar while trying to avoid a head on collision. Nine migrant labourers were killed in the accident.
Tweep @KRayannavar posted: “Lack of pre-planning cost migrant workers and family, their lives … #MigrantLabourersDying #MigrantLivesMatter”
No one cares
Many Indians are asking why no one cares about the lives of these workers whose services are otherwise very important for the country. “Is it because they are poor?”, asked Facebook user Vikas Arora, while sharing a photo of migrant workers walking on the roads, some barefoot.
Highlighting that the poor are important only when it comes to vote bank politics, @heyitskkp posted: “Governments (central and states ) and the bureaucracy have failed badly in migrants’ situation. The images are disturbing. There cannot be any explanation for this... Being poor means only one thing vote bank nothing else.”
Using #MigrantLivesMatter tweep @bahudari, who met some such walking migrant workers, tweeted on May 17: “One thing that the privileged may never understand fully: Dignity - we met hundreds of walking labourers. Not one, not a single person ever asked for help. Not for money, not for food, nothing. They just marched. Can you fathom that?”
He added: “Every single one of the hundreds we met trusted the government to have some concern for them. They had Aadhaar, had registered on online portals to go home, carried all the paperwork. Nothing mattered. Nobody cares, you still think the Prime Minister does?”
And, @EmpoweringGoa: “Why isn't the Supreme Court intervening? #COVID19 #MigrantLivesMatter”
Those who have decided not to return to villages are not better off either, many Indian news websites have reported that labourers are selling phones and other things, to help them survive. They don’t have money for food or rent.
On Sunday, harassed for rent by landlord, a migrant worker in Gurugram consumed poison and committed suicide.
The deceased man who worked as a plumber, lived by himself.
According to a hindustantimes.com report, the man’s neighbour said: “Around 6 am, I went to his room to wake him up. I kept knocking on his door but he did not open it. I got suspicious and then asked our landlord, who stays on the ground floor, to come over and check. When there was still no answer, we called the police helpline number and broke into the room.”
He added that the deceased man’s body was lying on the floor and there was an empty packet of poison next to it.
A suicide note was recovered, in which the man alleged that his landlord was harassing him for the rent.
Ajit, assistant sub-inspector (ASI), Shivaji Nagar police station, said that the deceased man would pay around ₹6,000 (Dh291) as rent. “The preliminary probe suggests that the victim owed around ₹30,000 (Dh1,457) to his landlord as rent.
In April, the Haryana Government had issued directions stating that landlords should not demand house rent for a month from migrant workers, students and paramedics in rural areas of the state. In the order, the authorities had said that if any landlord was found forcing such tenants to vacate, they would be liable to face strict criminal action.
A case was registered against the landlord under Section 306 (abetment to suicide) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at the Shivaji Nagar police station on Sunday.
The police said that the migrant worker’s family members, who stay in Odisha, have refused to collect his body as they are in a containment zone.
Citizens come to the rescue of the poor
In some parts of the country, due to the lack of government response, communities seem to be coming forward to help the migrant workers, as lockdown eased in some areas.
In a “heartwarming gesture”, people in Bhopal joined hands to help migrants with clothes, shoes and other essentials on a footpath they all walk past.
Reportedly, a group of residents has also been providing food and water to the passers-by. Several NGOs and volunteers have hit the national highway to distribute food, shoes, umbrellas and even financial aid for migrants walking back home.
Some organisations across the country, are using social media to create supply chains and ask for volunteers to help with the task.
Writer @AsimAli6 highlighted the government’s inaction and wrote: “This government wanted us to believe with the Citizenship Amendment Act that the main political issue was to help the 30,000 or so migrants from neighboring countries. Now, we have hundreds of thousands of our own internal migrants walking (and dying) on roads for two months and it hasn't done [anything]…”