On 19 March Prime Minister Modi gave a call to all Indians to observe a people’s curfew on 22 March 2020. He also asked us to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of the doctors, nurses and others who were in the forefront of the fight against the Novel Corona Virus. This appreciation was to be expressed by clapping of hands, ringing bells and beating of utensils, etc., from our balconies or doorsteps.

A large number of citizens – mostly in the urban, affluent areas – came out on their balconies, sounded conch shells, rang bells and beat utensils. It then really appeared that we were actually applauding the medical community and other health workers for their extremely risky but noble endeavour to help the nation tide over the crisis.

In his enthusiasm the Collector of a district even forgot all about the lockdown, and came out leading a procession of people making a big show of their “appreciation”. It may be amusing, but such sycophancy is quite common in the Indian bureaucracy.

The one-day people’s curfew was later extended to a 21-day enforced lockdown, later extended to 40 days. As the virus spread rapidly and it threatened our own lives, it became apparent that our so-called appreciation was quite superficial.

Thus we witnessed the spectacle of even educated people residing in posh residential areas and high-end gated communities in Delhi, Haryana and elsewhere shooing away neighbours who were doctors or healthcare specialists. Even pilots and crew of planes that brought in our citizens stranded in Corona-affected foreign countries faced the same ordeal.

The section of the population that was hit the hardest by the lockdown were the millions of temporary daily wage-earners. They lost their livelihood in the wake of the lockdown. They had neither any job, nor food or shelter. It was therefore natural for them to think of returning home for the time being. Unfortunately, the lockdown was already effective. All means of public transport including the railways were suspended. Thus, these migrant workers had no option other than hitting the highways, determined to walk all the way home regardless of the distance.

In a sight reminiscent of the refugee influx from erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, thousands of men women and children, having little alternative, hit the roads – marching hundreds of miles in the most pathetic condition. Many of them were run over by vehicles. They faced the lathi of the police; the fire brigade drenched them with disintectant .

A section of the media, consistent with their known policy, projected the whole episode as if these people had brought the COVID-19 to India in the first place and would spread them throughout the country, if allowed to return home. No one said a thing when persons brought home in special flights tested positive for Corona. They were secluded in special facilities created overnight for them. There was none for the migrant workers.

One such farm labour was the 12 year old Jamlo Makdam, who couldn’t bear the strain of a over 100 km trek on an empty stomach and died on the way. Her picture, flashed across the globe should continue to haunt every Indian long after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.
Her post-mortem report may say that she died due to exhaustion, dehydration or electrolytic imbalance. There will be no mention of the fact that it was the loss of her job in the chilli fields of Telangana, the consequent penury and fear of death that drove her and the others to undertake the long, arduous trek of 150 km.

She is not, however the only one to die like this since a countrywide lockdown was clamped on 24th March. According to reports, 22 migrant workers have died due to the lockdown.
If we had any conscience there would have been an outcry over this tragedy. We would have asked the government to apologise, not only to the hapless family which lost its only child, but to the entire nation for its utter failure to protect Makdam’s right to life, and for its inability to ensure that she was not forced to walk 150 km due to the lockdown.

The governments at the Centre and in the States, by the stroke of a pen, rendered millions of people jobless. While deciding to do so, they failed to plan for these poor workers either to return home safely (since their returning to work was uncertain) or to provide them with the basic necessities of life till things got normal. Bereft of any sense of compassion, we the people remained silent.

We ought to have asked, if we had any humanity left in us, how was it that the Government had all the money to charter flights to bring back to India our citizens stuck abroad, while it could not arrange a few special trains for the workers stranded across India to return home? The argument of the on-going lockdown does not hold water because of the numerous cases of exceptions permitted by the government.

Had we been endowed with feelings we would have asked the Prime Minister as to why, in spite of the Centre’s much publicised directive to the state governments to provide food and shelter to the migrant labourers, hundreds of them are still walking miles after miles to return home?

If only we had any sense of fairness left in us we would have asked the Prime Minister why it is all right to arrange for hundreds of pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat etc., to travel back from Benares and Uttarakhand in luxury buses arranged by the state notwithstanding the lockdown, while the migrant workers cannot be allowed even the great luxury of walking back home? It is only now, 38 days after the lockdown began that the government has allowed some of the workers to return to their states. Even then they are being asked to pay a part of the rail fare!

We would also have raised the question as to why, despite the lockdown, the state must bring back affluent students who went to some coaching centres away from home with the aim of becoming civil servants, doctors or engineers, while so many Jamlo Makdams – simply because they are poor – must “stay put where they are”?

Why this differential treatment for the two sets of people under the same law in a country that cries hoarse over its constitution being an epitome of “equality”? Well, the concept of equality in India has always been somewhat hazy. In practice, the law applies differently to different people. How can a poor labourer be equated with a pilgrim or a student?

It is not that stray voices are not raising these and related questions. However, in general a strange numbness has descended on the collective will of the nation to seek explanations from its leadership. Even these few feeble voices of sanity are met with a stony silence on the part of the government and a volley of virulent and abusive riposte on the electronic media from the shouting brigade of the ruling party.

It seems that even the higher bureaucracy has reneged on its duty to render advice to the ministers, assuming the safer role of merely carrying out instructions of their political bosses. It is perhaps for this reason that the frequency of ‘modifying’ or ‘amending’ Government orders and notifications is arising more frequently now than ever before. If instead of singing paeans to the power that be the higher echelons of the bureaucracy would only advise the decision-makers to plan in advance for the workers who would lose their jobs due to the lockdown, perhaps the little girl would still be alive, and the way we treat our less fortunate compatriots would not weigh as much on our national conscience.

According to newspaper reports of 15 May 2020 the Supreme Court opined that during times of crisis such as we are passing through now, the judiciary should work in harmony with the executive.  The Court refused to pass any order, saying that it was not possible for it to monitor who was walking and who was not. They would, of course, their Lordships added,  have the jurisdiction to intervene if the executive allowed the lives of citizens to be endangered.

There is no denying the fact that the judiciary must not be an impediment to the smooth functioning of the executive, especially during a crisis. If forcing people out of their jobs, denying them wages and then failing to provide them with food and shelter is not “endangering” their lives, then I do not know what the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution means. 

Strangely, after over a month’s delay the Supreme Court has suddenly awakened to the fact  that thousands of migrant labourers have been walking back home and that they have been walking on the highways and on railway tracks. The court has been magnanimous enough to suo motu issue an “order” directing the central and state governments to provide these labourers with shelter, transport and food!   And on what the court has relied in passing the order?  “Newspaper and media reports” – the same documents which the same court had earlier found to be of no evidenciary value and, therefore, could not be the basis for a PIL.

It would not be a bad idea to conduct some research on what led to this sudden change of heart of the apex court.

The central government assures us that the country has enough stock of food grains, and that special trains are carrying them to all corners of the country. Strangely, many states are complaining that they have not received even a fraction of their requirement of food grains. If the centre and the states, even at this critical juncture when starvation looms large on millions of people, play a political game of one-upmanship the country may have to pay an unimaginably heavy price for it.