Migrant exodus puts India on the road, in reverse gear

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By Dr Shirin Abbas, The India Observer: India is on the roads, literally, as the COVID 19 pandemic presents it with a unique problem—that of lakhs of migrant workers returning home, on foot from the big cities they helped build and which have turned their backs on these impoverished workers.

Migrant workers walk miles to return to their villages, during Lockdown, Coronavirus, in New Delhi, India, March 26, 2020. To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/INDIA-MIGRANTS. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

With India nearing 50 days of lockdown this week, the patience and meagre savings of thousands of migrant workers in Indian cities have run out, leaving them with no choice but to return any which way they can, to their villages thousands of miles away.  Large scale exodus has been reported from cities like Mumbai, Aurangabad, Delhi-NCR and other cities as with no rations, no work and no chance of any relief, these people have chosen to return home, perhaps to never come back to the big cities.

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While India has arranged flights to ferry back Indians stranded abroad, there is hardly any relief available for its impoverished migrant labourers who left their villages to help build the cities where these flights will be landing. Expressways like the Yamuna Expressway which link India’s national capital to Agra and other cities are today not filled with racing cars and SUVs but trudging labourers –some on cycles, on rickshaw trolleys that they used to earn their living on, or just by foot. Most say they have lost faith in getting any relief from the government and have decided to take the matter in their own hands, or feet—literally.

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Many of these labourers, are now tired of waiting hours in line for food or rations, running out of their savings and with no guarantee of work in the near future, have decided to return back to their villages. But with neither trains nor buses plying in the lockdown, most are left with no choice but to resort to desperate measures to make their way back.

Only today a news channel interviewed 40 labourers packed in a small mini-tempo returning from Nasik with the driver, his wife and two children riding in the front.  By the evening a shaken reporter was reporting the death of the driver as the small vehicle carrying them was hit by a speeding car from behind, overturning the packed vehicle and killing the driver on the spot.

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Bread lay on the Train Tracks

On May 9 sixteen people were run over by a freight train near Maharashtra’s Aurangabad while they were sleeping on railway tracks after a long journey on foot in search of transport to return home in Madhya Pradesh. After the accident, the railways called for new protocols to alert train drivers about people walking on tracks. Meanwhile, the move by BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to freeze major labour laws in order to bolster businesses and revive the economy in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak has drawn sharp criticism.

The victims were in a group of 20 people who left Jalna for their villages the previous evening after deciding to no longer wait for their employer – a company running a steel factory – to pay their wages. These migrant workers did not have jobs, and sometimes food, for over a month as factories remained shut due to the nationwide lockdown in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

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In view of the daily reports of such tragedies, the Centre on Monday decided to run 100 special trains daily for migrants from Tuesday to help them return to their homes during the Coronavirus lockdown even as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, held a video meeting with several Chief Ministers of various states, mulling on another extension to the lockdown. India is already in Lockdown 3.0 with the numbers of those afflicted by Covid-19 nearing 70,000.

The government of Maharashtra, one of the worst affected states, has announced free bus services as news channels live-streamed images of hundreds of workers returning home any which way they could. Desperate measures have been adopted by these migrants, with no option left but to return home. Some have taken loans to pay the $50 fare being charged to ferry them to their homes, others have been caught hiding in a concrete mixer, squashed together in trucks and other vehicles, desperate to return home. For those for whom these channels are not available, there is no choice but to opt to walk the distance, sometimes over 1000 kilometres to their homes

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In view of the repeated news of tragedies on the road and train tracks, being used by the migrant labourers to escape being baton-charged by the police, forcing them to return, the Indian government today announced that 100 trains would ply from various cities of India to take home the migrants. Buses will also be run from various sites in Maharashtra to take them to Madhya Pradesh border.

15 AC trains have also been announced open for e-booking by the government but the fares of these would obviously not be within the means of the impecunious labourers.

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Resentment over lack of transparency on PM Cares Fund

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the government created the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-Cares) Fund. While questions have been asked about its need when the PM’s National Relief Fund already exists, the government is entitled to come up with institutional innovations for special situations.

The PM-Cares fund has received substantial contributions. There has, however, been a lack of transparency. The government has not made public the amount of donation received by the fund. It has also not yet outlined the composition of the board of trustees, which, besides the PM and three top ministers (defence, home and finance), is meant to include three eminent persons. The government has also not clarified if the fund is already being used, and if so, for what purpose. This is surprising because it is clear that India is under great fiscal stress, and the objectives of the fund include “creation and up-gradation of health care or pharmaceutical facilities, other necessary infrastructure, funding relevant research and other types of support”. They also include rendering financial assistance, providing grants of payments of money and taking “any such steps as may be deemed necessary by the Board of Trustees” for the affected population. India responded to the PM’s call for support to the fund. It is now the government’s turn to tell citizens what is being done with it.

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Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Saturday reiterated his demand for an audit of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-Cares) Fund, created in March to fund relief measures aimed at easing the distress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.

“The #PmCares fund has received huge contributions from PSUs {public sector undertakings} & major public utilities like the Railways,” Gandhi tweeted.

“It’s important that PM ensures the fund is audited & that the record of money received and spent is available to the public,” added Gandhi, who voiced a similar demand at a news conference on Friday.

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“The PM-Cares Fund should be audited. We should know about donors and donations. We should know who gave how much. There is no problem in saying that,” Gandhi had said.

Meanwhile, while the Indian economy staggers – with the increase in COVID 19 cases the likelihood of lockdown 4.0 is looming large on India, desperately

Compiled By Yusra Jabeen, Edited By Adam Rizvi

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Shirin Abbas

Dr. Shirin Abbas is the Bureau Chief "TheIndiaObserver.Com". She is a world-renowned journalist, winner of several national and international awards for her contribution to Media Research.The first recipient of the prestigious British Chevening Scholarship for Print Journalism in 1999 from her state of Uttar Pradesh. Under the same, she studied at the School of Media, Communication, and Design at the University Of Westminster, London and interned with The Irish Times, Dublin. She has been a journalist for over three decades, working at several national English dailies in North India. She completed her PhD. in Mass Communication in 2016.

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