There are some visuals from the post-Independent India which would forever remained etched in our collective conscious and would cause all sane persons to hang their heads in shame.
The first such images were the trudging of millions of people, including women, children and the infirm, across the newly created border between India and Pakistan carrying whatever belongings they could salvage and the gruesome violence that left thousands dead. Then there were visuals of victims of Bhopal gas leak tragedy, massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere, violence in the wake of demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and brutal attack on Muslims in Gujarat after a railway compartment at Godhra was put on fire which led to the death of Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya.
The latest visuals for which we must hang our heads as a nation are those of thousands of poor migrants, including women, children and the infirm, walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes after the four hour notice for a national lockdown in the wake of coronavirus outbreak.
With no jobs, no roof, no money in their pockets and a vast majority having families including small children in their villages, it is one of the worst crisis that have befallen these unfortunate ones. Undoubtedly coronavirus has unleashed the biggest ever human tragedy of epic proportions.
It is evident that the government just forgot about the plight of millions of daily wage earners who subsisted from hand to mouth. Neither was there any reference for them in the prime minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation, nor did the state governments pay any attention to their plight for the next four days. It was only after a hue and cry was raised by a section of media that the governments woke up. Public buses were provided to take them to shelter homes and arrangements were made for their food. Yet again, the governments did little to look after the families of many of these migrants which subsequently led to unrest among such migrants.
Ironically the government sent special aircrafts to get back its citizens stranded abroad but let lakhs of migrants walk for miles and did not provide public transport to take them home.
But the discrimination against the poor unorganised labour and daily wagers did not end there. While several of them faced lathi charge for demanding to go back home, some of the state governments have sent special buses to ferry pilgrims and tourists who were similarly stranded.
The latest example of stark discrimination is the provision of hundreds of buses sent by Yogi Adityanath’s government in Uttar Pradesh to Kota in Rajasthan to ferry back students stranded in the town. Of these buses could be sent to Kota to bring home students, why is this not being done for migrants wanting to reach home.
BJP spokespersons offered no explanation for such discrimination. They had none. It is obvious that the government came under pressure of the students who had launched a social media campaign while the poor and voice-less migrants were not that capable to do so. Yet they held hopes for an early return to their homes. The decision to extend the lockdown, which appears to be justified, for another 19 days led to some of these people losing patience. This led to unrest in places like Mumbai, Surat, Vijayawada and Pune.
Interviews with a wide section of such section of society has revealed that while some complain of inadequate food or improper arrangements for stay, most have the thoughts of their families back in villages who have been left to fend for themselves.
It is certainly a genuine concern and a matter that needs to be addressed by the governments both at the central and state levels. As a first step the governments must ensure that all poor and needy must get adequate rations whether they have ration cards or not or whether they fall under one or the other categories of poor as per government classifications. Each citizen must be ensured adequate rations and a little subsistence allowance.
Our granaries are overflowing with stocks of wheat and rice. In fact a huge amount of stocks get damaged due to leakages or are eaten up by rats and other pests each year. As per reports, the government has a total food stock of 71 million metric tonnes while the national requirement of minimum stock is 22 million metric tonnes. In addition, the rabbi crop is ready for harvesting and thanks to the farmers in Punjab, Haryana and adjoining states, the days of shortage of foodgrains are long over. One of the food experts said during a televised debate that even if the government was to distribute free rations to all the poor, without the need of a ration card, the total outflow would be only 20 million metric tonnes.
This is the time for the government to open up all the surplus stocks and be liberal in distributing the ration free to the needy. It can depend on the hardy farmers, even though they themselves are facing serious crisis for harvesting and selling their crop, to make up for the losses. Farmers too should be provided adequate facilities and liberal loans to tide over the current crisis.
When union minister for food and public distribution Ram Bilas Paswan was confronted with questions on the central government sitting over huge stocks of foodgrains, he simply side stepped the questions and made no commitment for release to mitigate the sufferings of the poor.
And while government certainly needs to do more to meet the needs of the poor and the stranded migrants, each one of us also needs to put our best foot forward to help out our countrymen.
Government agencies in certain areas are doing good work and have taken cooperation of local citizens, social and welfare organisations and religious groups to reach out to the needy. Many of them have formed WhatsApp groups which include government officials concerned and prominent citizens where notes about requirements and distribution of free food or dry rations are exchanged. Some of them are doing a wonderful and commendable job.
This is perhaps more true of regions like Punjab and Haryana, where residents have reached out to the needy and are providing them food and other basic requirements.
Punjabis, and particularly the Sikhs, are always known to be extra generous in feeding and taking care of those in need. Several Sikh organisations are infact organising langars not only in several parts of the country but even abroad. I’m also aware of several families who had transformed their kitchens into community kitchens for preparing food on a large scale for distribution. Perhaps that could be one reason why there are no or few reports of unrest in the north part of India as compared to the west including Maharashtra.
All it is necessary that those more fortunate ones must donate generously to such social organisations and government agencies like the Red Cross to contribute to their efforts to reach out to the needy.
The poor and the migrants now stranded in various parts of the country also need generous amount of compassion and help both from the other citizens and the government. While breaking laws by them is not excusable, it is also important for the government to be act with them in a more humane manner.