Migrants walking on highway feel brunt of policy that depends on economic progress alone

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By Gagan Sethi*

The other day some of us decided to go along the ghostlike highway that connects Ahmedabad with Rajasthan border. It was less than four hours ride from the Chiloda Circle to Shamlaji (on the Ahmedabad to Udaipur super highway). Starting at 9:30 am, we returned at 4 pm, interacting with several of the migrants who were moving in groups ranging from two to 25.

In all, we estimated later, they were around 450 of them; 70% of them were heading to different Uttar Pradesh districts, and the rest to Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. Many of them were scared of talking, as they identified any vehicle that passed by as police surveillance van. However, they would open up after we would give them some food and water.

None had plan their trip. All daily/contract wagers, they had not received their April entitlements except ration . They just took their haversack, started walking, not even knowing the route, sometimes getting into fields near police check posts. At 43-44 degrees temperature and covering 35-40 km a day, they appeared to be moving mindlessly, hoping some day they would reach home. Walking in such despair is the way to be hopeful. Among them there were young boys and women, some with children.

Daily unskilled wage workers, they told us that they worked at metro rail sites in Ahmedabad, while others said, they were employed as casual labourers at small or medium scale enterprises — like saree dyeing units. Most of them would start walking in the wee hours.

After 2 pm, they would huddle under a culvert of a large over-bridge being, currently being built on the six lane highway, so that Gujarat could vibrate even more. They would again walk for another few hours in the evening.

As we crossed the Ahmedabad-Udaipur railway crossing, we saw hordes of them walking along rail track — the reason being, very few know the routes they were taking and this was a predictable route notwithstanding that walking along a railway track is far more difficult but allows you to also escape the police patrolling on the roads. The Google map technology, which allows us to locate our passages, is available only on smart phones, and that is the privilege of the few. The rest still operate with old phones.

Talking of the phones, there was this desperate need to recharge them at different points, which surely isn’t available. Indeed, perhaps it would sound hollow if someone even thinks of trying and procuring solar mobile chargers for them — of course Chinese made — costing Rs 300 to 400, “killing” Indian markets. I don’t understand what this means for the Swadesh argument but at this moment a Chinese solar charger can be huge support.

As we spoke to them, we could see anger in their eyes, especially when a jeep passed by to give food and water, but refusing to give lift to the next stop. Most of them said they had no other means to survive. One of them even said, once back to their “vatan” (home) they would at least be given burial or cremation.

Some walked with rucksacks, while others hung rexine bags or “thelas” on their shoulders and a water bottle in the hand. A few dragged their bags on the two wheels attached beneath their bag. Many had already developed swollen feet. Rubber slippers they wore had come to a breaking point. They were repaired with pins and caused even more agony.

We had ordered 500 chappals for distribution, the multi purpose gamcha which we also see on TV but these will prove insufficient. I just couldn’t reconcile as to what compulsion made these people take the suicidal step of walking 1,200 to 1,800 km.

PHOTO-2020-05-11-08-49-22Most of them said they had no money to pay for the train fare (approximately Rs 700), and also that the Shramik Express trains for the next 15 days were booked, and that they wouldn’t be able to survive for so long. Hence, they decided to begin walking all the way to UP, Bihar, Jharkhand.

The irony was that they were walking past the grand concrete buildings all along the empty ghostlike route, most of which they and their ilk had constructed. Today those edifices look ugly in the circumstances, reminding me of the Brutalist architecture. On way I counted at least eight international schools with imposing buildings advertising world class education for children. There were at least 50 temples with grandiose architecture, at least eight colleges. What a visual contradiction of the gross inequality perpetuated by neo-liberal economics!

The last lockdown, I thought, was the last straw for the migrants, especially from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, who had no resources to survive in their “karmabhumi.” So it was better to die en route while returning their janambhumi, is what some of them told us.

Surely, it reflected the inability of the in-migrant states to deal with the humongous tragedy.

Seeking necessary permissions, along with my colleagues I decided to take this route after watching NDTV visuals of migrant workers walking home from Mumbai and Delhi. Almost impulsively, I phoned up Roshini of Yuva and Amitabh of Oxfam if they could at least run food and water distribution on wheels. It occurred to me: Closer home, migrants were walking from Ahmedabad, towards Rajasthan.

On my return, I realised that food and water takes care of just four hours of their months of ordeal. I wondered if we could put up outposts every 40 km in coordination authorities and community groups. Each of these outposts would provide chappals, medicines, clothes for women in place of sanitary napkins (which they don’t find comfortable), solar mobile chargers, maps and guidance to those who don’t know the routes.

From the next days we have been meeting and discussing with district collectors on the routes requesting to collaborate. We offered to run shuttle bus service on the 100 km route at our cost. They seemed scared that if all this gets announced they won’t be able to handle the crowd, which may be true, they also said that if we legitimise this and Rajasthan doesn’t accept them then the Collector Aravalli will have to bear the brunt.

Among the suggestions we put forward included negotiating with private bus owners to help these migrants reach their destination. In Gujarat there are at least eight such routes where countless (an estimated over 50 lakh) migrants are on the move.

Those who are waiting at the starting points across the state (in cities like Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Vadodara etc.) would need well-designed Shramik Bhavans. Private and public residential schools, hostels, religious infrastructure could be made available and opened with all amenities, including creches and adequate medical facilities with NGO help.

We found both the collectors sensitive and willing to open such Bhavans or shelter homes requesting civil society to run them. But they can’t allow shuttle buses to operate.

Centralised rules in disaster management are generic and don’t lend themselves to solution finding. My previous mantra in disaster mitigation has been Listen, Trust, Empower, Decentralise. Communities, administrative leadership and civil society can easily sort this out 100 km by 100 km, rather than every 15 days wait for one man from the pulpit to tell you how to proceed for the fortnight.

While I write this, food and water distribution goes into the sixth day and we struggle to find a solution, which is within the rules, yet can lessen the ordeal of those who walk because, as one in the groups told us, “We waited based on a promise of Rajkot authorities for 15 days in a shelter home with subhuman conditions but nothing happened. Why should we trust the Government?”

Surely, civil society leaders can’t discuss this in webinars and WhatsApp, but will have to lead from the front. One needs to provide hope and regain trust of Indians who have been betrayed because they don’t count in the design of New India, where economic progress is the only driving policy framework.

*Chair, Janvikas, Ahmedabad

4 thoughts on “Migrants walking on highway feel brunt of policy that depends on economic progress alone

  1. Kudos to you Gaganbhai, I heard some of the same stories from Anand-Swati, Renu-Chinu and Ghanshambh-Smita
    my neighbours and friends at Everest Dignity who went to Golden Chokdi with food etc.
    I felt strongly that if we can make descent arrangements to stay for them and connect them to their former employers if they wanted them back, now that they were ready to restart their MSMES or construction work. We tried talking to authorities to provide space for us to support their rehab and if they did not want to stay back, link them with official transport, instead of hardship of walking with families in circumstances you well narrated.
    Unfortunately, official support was not at all encouraging. They talked about shelter homes, which barely supported small number of people.

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  2. Possibility of civil society and public authorities talking to one another and coming up with measures that will mitigate suffering in an abiding manner is indeed encouraging. Everyone wants an economic revival.. can’t we just freeze the status quo as it were .. ensure that people change their minds about leaving the city by providing sustenance needs and rent for a place to stay .. the jobs are there.. a recent study on non migrant workers in Delhi by EPIC( Energy Policy Institute, University of Chicago in India )noted that incomes had dropped by at least 57 per cent but there was widespread compliance with public health directives . The instinct for survival in these unprecedented times will deliver immense benefit to
    everybody provided the basics are taken care of

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  3. Dear Gaganbhai, Keep the work going. If this near-octogenarian can help in any concrete way, send a line please.
    Best,
    Sudhir Chandra

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  4. such in-human attitude of the government, perhaps this is their biggest poverty eradication program rather than responding to corona virus!!!

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