Skip to main content

Migrants walking on highway feel brunt of policy that depends on GDP growth alone


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.
Most 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

Comments

TRENDING

There is need to distinguish between RT-PCR positives and clinical cases of Covid-19

Insisting on the need to distinguish between RT-PCR positives and clinical cases of Covid-19, an open letter by 20 doctors and medical professionals: *** Firstly the virus has gone through the Indian population enough and is now well established as an endemic infection which shall keep causing flu like illness in only few people as most will not even develop severe symptoms. The ICMR had already called for the suspension of testing anyone not having any symptoms (Jan 2022). Children have been shown to tackle the virus much easier than adults. Children also do not pass Covid infection to others that easily as adults do to children. Schools have opened and no single outbreak or incidences of severe disease have been documented. Therefore healthy children must not be tested for Covid anymore unless the treating doctor in hospitalised cases requires it. Calling people (children or adults) with RT-PCR positive report as “cases” is faulty. A “case” is a person who has disease and presents wi

Musician and follower of Dr Ambedkar? A top voilinist has this rare combination!

Some time back, a human rights defender, Vidya Bhushan Rawat, who frequently writes for Counterview, forwarded to me a video interview with Guru Prabhakar Dhakade, calling him one of India's well known violinists.  Dhakade is based in Nagpur and has devoted his life for the Hindustani classical music. A number of his disciples have now been part of Hindi cinema world in Mumbai, says Rawat. He has performed live in various parts of the country as well as abroad. What however attracted me was Dhakade's assertions in video about Dr BR Ambedkar, India's undisputed Dalit icon. Recorded several years back at his residence and music school in Nagpur, Dhakade not only speaks candidly about issues he faced, but that he is a believer in Dr Ambedkar's philosophy. It is in this context that Dhakade narrates his problems, even as stating that he is determined to achieve his goal. A violinist and a follower of Ambedkar? This was new to me. Rarely do musicians are found to take a

Define Dalit not by caste but action, belief; include all who oppose inequality

By Ajaz Ashraf* Dalit rights leader Martin Macwan’s endeavour has been to redefine the term Dalit and delink it from caste, best exemplified by the headline to this interview. An academician of repute, he financed his studies by working as wage labour. During his college days, he joined a group of non-Dalit intellectuals, comprising a professor each from the Christian, Parsi, Muslim and upper caste Hindu communities, to work with Dalits. Their work invited a backlash. On 25 January 1986, the reactionary landlords of the Darbar community in Golana village, Anand district, gunned down four of his colleagues, wounded another 18 and set houses on fire. This prompted Macwan to establish the Navsarjan Trust, which aims to skill Dalits and expand their consciousness regarding the systemic oppression of which they are principal victims. On 25 January 2002, on the anniversary of the Golana massacre , he led a march through rural Gujarat. His experience of the march had him write a book wherein