Indian govt has miserably failed its migrants during this pandemic: P Sainath
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By Our Bureau Chief, Dr. Shirin Abbas, Edited By Adam Rizvi, NY, USA, The India Observer: “There is no denying that the Indian government has failed its “footloose migrants” miserably in the background of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said P. Sainath, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and one of India’s most prominent and sterling journalists writing consistently on issues beleaguering rural India and its marginalized citizens.
Sainath kicked off a ten-day webinar series being organized by the Kolkata based Adamas University, Birla Global University, Sharda University, Delhi Metropolitan College to name but a few along with leading media houses like Anand Bazar Patrika group and others. The 10-day series which began on June 1 and continues till June 10, is the brainchild of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Adamas University, Prof. Ujjwal K Choudhary who brainstormed with other colleagues across various fields and varsities to come up with this marathon session on various topics, Covering 10 topics and including 50 eminent speakers from different sections of the Media Industry, the unique series is being attended by nearly a 1000 students and 500 academics across 15 cities of India.
“Just the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew imposed by the government is again a sign of its total insensitivity towards these migrants. That one diktat itself forced them to walk thousands of kilometers in the peak of the summer heat. Responding to queries posed by this reporter, Sainath elaborated on the ways in which he felt the government had failed its most marginalized citizens during the terrible pandemic,” he said.
“Firstly, by imposing an irrational lockdown without a care for the impact it was going to have on this huge population that will be left jobless homeless and penniless,” he added, secondly by not bothering to think about them even as they started piling up in cities and on highways and railway tracks.”
Sainath pointed out, “Since the lockdown was imposed, there have been five addresses by the PM Modi to the Indian public. The first four did not even mention the words, migrants, or laborers. The fifth, mentioned the word laborer four times and ‘migrant laborer’ just once.”
Mr. Sainath said he had been repeatedly “yelling himself hoarse” in his various reports about the largescale urban migration that India had witnessed in the last two decades, but no one had heeded his calls. “If you see the Census figures it is blatantly obvious. If you compare the figure of urban and rural populations it is obvious that Urban India has added 68 billion to its numbers in 2011 since the last Census in 2001. Where have these people come from—rural India obviously. They populated cities and became the ghettoized workforce that we became dependent on…the construction workers, the ones who paved our roads, the ones who populated the underbelly of our huge cities and became industrial and domestic workers, auto drivers, mechanics, and plumbers. And today, in this crisis, these very cities have turned their backs on them. With nothing to eat, no jobs and kicked out of their houses, they have been left with no choice to walk barefoot, because yes, the government has even closed al transport in the lockdown, leaving them hungry alone and desperate in cities that no longer wanted them.”
Speaking to media students across the four educational institutions, Sainath said, “You have to make a choice. Do you want to be in the media or do you want to be a journalist? There are papers that will never carry stories about the underbelly of Indian civil society as they do not see them as their readers or advertisers. On a five-year average, coverage of rural issues on the front pages of Indian mainstream papers range at 0.67%. In a non-election year, this percentage goes down to 0.18%. So, it’s a conscious decision to make whether you want to be part of the media that covers the 2 trillion INR Media and Entertainment Industry or work on issues like environment and development —and yes there are takers for those journalists too and they earn deep respect for making those choices.
He added, “The government has stated that 9.1 million have been transported to their states on specially run Shramik (Labourer) Trains meant for these migrants to reach home. But what has happened once they have reached their homes? These very people have now been abandoned by their villages and forcibly left out in the fields in the searing heat of summer with temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and more in fear that they are COVID carriers and may infect the village. There are people out there—on the outskirts of villages, in fields, dying of sunstroke and diarrhea, and dehydration. And it seems, no one cares. If you compile stories together you will see the cumulative failure of the administrative machinery. What about Jamto, the 12-year-old girl who worked in the chilly fields (Child Labour, mind you) girl walked 150 km to reach her native Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh, but died just a few km before her home. He was referring to the story of the 12-year-old girl worked at the chilly fields in a village in Telangana to earn a livelihood for her family. Desperate to reach her village, the girl began her journey on April 15 along with 11 others who worked with her.
They walked for three days, cutting through forests and avoiding the highway due to patrolling. However, the girl developed excruciating pain in her stomach just around 14 km from home and was forced to stop there. As per reports, she collapsed there and died on the spot. According to the deceased girl’s father, she had been working in Telangana for two months. “She had walked for three days. She suffered from vomiting and stomach ache,” the girl’s father said.
Meanwhile, the state government has announced Rs 1 lakh compensation for the girl’s family.
By imposing an insensitively thought out and unplanned lockdown, the government has hit the economy and impacted the livelihood of millions of the poorest laborers and craftsmen. Handlooms and Handicrafts are the biggest employers of rural artisans and with the cancellation of all the big crafts festivals and many of the small shopkeepers are saddled with inventory worth millions that there are no takers for.
Asked if he felt this was a total failure of the PM Modi led government, Mr. Sainath said, “Not only has the government failed, it has failed miserably on all counts. “What has government action on COVID achieved? Nothing but widening the divides between the haves and the have nots. Those who were most vulnerable and fragile have been crippled, disproportionately impacted.”
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Terming this as the “biggest betrayal of Modern India Mr. Sainath said, “In the last 30 years of development, we have destroyed livelihoods in millions in rural areas. There hasn’t just been rural to urban migration moving to another state to work as brick kiln workers, then migrating elsewhere—taking up whatever work was available for 15-20 days.”
So what steps can be taken to improve the situation, we ask?
First and foremost, the government must gear up to seek that these migrants who have reached their homes find employment in the harvesting of the kharief crops and other works under schemes like MNREGA. This will temporarily ameliorate the situation.
Also, I see a huge food security crisis looming with farmers in UP and Punjab turning to cash crops like cotton. We must turn back our farmers towards food crops to feed the teeming millions and open our food stocks for subsidized if not free distribution instead of letting them rot in granaries. The government should do away with schemes to make hand sanitizers from ethanol derived from rice stocks and think about providing food for the hungry.
“The only choice before the government is to abandon these old frameworks of neoliberal development and look at policies that will benefit the teeming, hungry millions of this country.”
Asked how he can retain the balance and guts to speak such home truths which may be unpalatable to the current government, Sainath avers, “All that I have said are enshrined in the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution. India is the Sovereign Socialist Democratic Republic and as long as it remains one, the government is accountable to its people.
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