THE HEART-WRENCHING photographs of lakhs of daily wage earners walking back to their homes along with their family member reminded some of the photographs of the tragic partition when millions had to similarly trudge for miles across the newly created borders.
It is apparent that the fate of such daily wage workers was not taken into consideration before the announcement by prime minister Narendra Modi for a four-hour notice before the nation-wide lock down. The anxiety among such poor people was further fuelled by rumours that the 21 day lockdown was just the first step and that it may continue for a much longer duration.
The government had apparently not considered the approach of other countries like South Africa which has given notice of three days before the enforcement of lockdown. This gave enough time to people to reach homes without leading to any panic.
In the case of our country, the four-hour lockdown notice also included sudden stoppage of public transport including railways and buses. Also there was no mention about provisions being made for food and basic needs of the daily wage workers near their place of stay. This left them with little choice but to start the long walk back home.
A blame game has now started over the reasons or the circumstance leading to the migration of daily wage earners from the cities, particularly the metropolitan cities, back to their villages.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is now blaming the state governments for the failure to look after the migrants who were forced to take to the roads fearing hunger on the wake of a prolonged lockdown. The states, on the other hand, are putting the onus on the Centre for the sudden decision for lockdown without bothering about the fate of lakhs of labourers and their families who live on hand to mouth basis.
While the central government had been silent over the lack of facilities for daily wage earners, a senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who often participates in debates on television under the guise of a "political analyst”, has been saying it was the duty of the state governments to make arrangements of basic needs for daily wage workers. However this is only an attempt to shift the blame.
Ideally the centre should have discussed the issue of lockdown with the states or should have informed the states about the need for arrangements for the poor. Evidently no thought was given before the announcement.
The state governments on their part were slow to react. Alarm bells should have rung when the movement of daily wage workers and their families had just begun. It took several days of media exposure about the plight of the migrants trudging on roads that woke up the government to the human tragedy.
It was certainly better late than never that arrangements have been made for their stay and food in public facilities but this would remain a black chapter in our history.
It was tragic irony that while the country sent special aircraft to ferry Indians struck abroad, no arrangements were made to provide public transport for daily wage earners to send them home. It is only now that the government has made arrangements for their stay and food till the period of lockdown.
But this is not the end of tragedy and the implication of migration would be felt for a long long time. For instance in Punjab and Haryana the wheat crop is ready for harvesting and the farmers are going to find it very difficult to harvest the crop without the help of the migrant labourers. Besides that, they would not be able to find enough combine harvesters which normally reach the region after the end of the harvesting season in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
The government has also now allowed transportation of goods across the states in order to maintain essential supplies. However with serious shortage of daily wage labour it would be very difficult to start production in small scale and big industries.
While so far the spread of coronavirus has remained under control and credit must go the government, and in particular to the medical fraternity, the long term impact on economy is certainly going to be devastating.
What the government must worry about and focus right know is to restart production of essential commodities. The stocks are fast running out and unless production is restarted, we are going to face a major crisis relating to availability of basic necessities. For that it would need to install confidence among the labour and wage earners by looking after their primary needs. It is imperative that the central and the state governments must work in close coordination to plan for the future.
(The author, a freelance journalist, is a former Resident Editor of Indian Express, Chandigarh, and reported on the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir, North-Eastern India, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab in his long, illustrious career.)