Fact check: Were the migrant workers' sufferings unavoidable?

Fact check: Were the migrant workers’ sufferings unavoidable?


There was a visible presence of anxiety over the spreading of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on March 24th 2020, when he announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown. At the very beginning, he mentioned how the richest countries of the world have all collapsed due to the COVID-19 pandemic despite having adequate infrastructure. It will worry anyone if they realise how the COVID-19 epidemic will create a catastrophe in an undeveloped country like India when countries like the US, Italy, France, Germany or China crumbled in combating this menace (though China has controlled the situation).

Thousands of migrant workers walking for hundreds of miles to reach their native villages, carrying their belongings and children alike became quintessential of the lockdown. Thousands of workers assembled at Delhi’s Anand Vihar ISBT violating the so-called “social distancing” norms and ignoring the fear of the virus infection. Many decided to walk back to their native places to avoid getting infected in over-crowded buses. Around 22 people died due to stress from walking or after being mowed down by trucks. Even now, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are stuck in the cities they work in. 

In a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court, lawyer Prashant Bhushan has alleged that 400,000 workers are housed in such shelters where “social distancing” norms are turned into a mockery. According to a report of NDTV,  200 to 250 workers lived in the shelter which caught fire due to a scuffle over food on April 11th. Bhushan, through his PIL, demanded that the government directly pay wages to the workers. The Supreme Court rejected this plea on the ground of not interfering in the functioning of the government. The majority of India’s poor and labouring masses are either starving or living in a state of semi-starvation. Reports of starvation deaths are pouring in from different parts of the country.

What was possible and didn’t happen?

Were such absolute harassment, abuse and humiliation, that the poor working class of India has been subjected to due to the nationwide lockdown, unavoidable? Does India really lack the adequate resources and infrastructure required to avoid a situation like this? Let’s analyse what the facts and figures say.      

Was it possible for the government to keep the migrant workers home-quarantined in the cities where they work? 

While many would say no, facts say that it could’ve been possible.

The Business Today reported that 1.28m flats remain unsold in 30 major cities of the country. As the economic condition of the country has been deteriorating, we can easily assume that the number of unsold flats should’ve increased by now. Therefore, if the government would’ve used these flats, each to accommodate four migrant workers, then 5.1m workers could’ve been accommodated maintaining the physical distancing guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO). 

We didn’t even count the dormitories of the numerous clubs of the rich, the hotels, the Ashrams of religious sects, unsold luxury villas, etc. The majority of the migrant workers are construction workers and they have walked towards their villages staring at the very buildings they have constructed. Even if these flats remain unsold, these creations aren’t meant to house their creators when calamity strikes the latter.     

Was it possible for the government to ferry the migrant workers to their native places in a hassle-free way? 

Yes, it was possible to ferry these millions of migrant workers to their homes if the government would’ve desired so.

As per the Indian Railways’ Yearbook 2018-19, the total seating capacity in the conventional coaches (non-EMU) of the largest public-sector carrier was 4.04m. If we consider that by following the WHO guidelines only 1/4th passengers were ferried by the Indian Railways in the conventional coaches and only half of the rolling stock was used, then 500,000 people could have been ferried in each run. As the passenger services have been stalled, in a period of a few days, with proper food supply, the Indian Railways could have easily ferried a majority of migrant workers from the metropolitan cities to important hubs in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal.  

According to a report in The Times of India on September 8th 2018, 280,000 buses are in a running condition. If we consider that each bus has 40 seats and if the government would have decided that it will ferry workers in these buses from the railway hubs or from metro cities to nearest districts within 500 km, following the WHO’s guidelines on maintaining safe physical distance, then hundreds of thousands could’ve been ferried by them. The workers could’ve been saved from travelling in absolutely crowded buses like animals heading towards a butchery. We didn’t even count the number of taxis, minivans, matadors and trucks that the government could’ve deployed. 

Can the government feed the migrant workers stranded in different cities without much hassle? 

Yes, it’s absolutely doable for the government if it ever wanted to provide food grains to the poor migrant workers.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) own newspaper, The Sunday Guardian, reported on March 21st 2020 that 38,000 metric tonnes (MTs) of foodgrains were damaged in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns in the last five years. The report says that every year, more than 3,000 MTs of food grains, including rice, wheat and pulses, have been rotting in the FCI godowns or the Central Warehousing Corporation godowns. 

On March 26th 2020, The Economic Times reported that there is a stock of about 58.49 million tonnes of foodgrain in the FCI godowns throughout India. While rice constitutes 30.97m tonne, there is a stock of 27.52m tonnes of wheat. This means, approximately 44 kg per head food grain is in stock for 1.3 billion Indians. The threshold that the FCI has to maintain is 21m tonnes, which still gives the government a bandwidth of 37.49m tonnes of food grain for distribution among the poor, especially the migrant workers. If along with this the government would have raided the godowns of the hoarders and usurers, a huge amount of foodgrains could have been recovered and distributed among the poor. None would have to starve then. No poor woman would have to throw her children into a river due to her inability to feed them, like what happened in the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh.

Why the double standards in COVID-19 containment?

If those whom either the Modi regime airlifted from foreign locations to save them from COVID-19 infection or those who arrived in India from Europe or North America were quarantined on their arrival, then the epidemic couldn’t have blistered. The whole country wouldn’t have to be locked down like this. The Indian state’s police can brutally torture the poor migrant workers on the streets but it can’t touch the rich by violating their “democratic rights”. So, the migrant workers, the poor and marginalised people and the entire country, for that matter, is paying for the sins of the handful of rich and upper-middle class people. 

What about testing?

In a report published on March 27th 2020, News18 cited the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to show that until 8pm of March 25th, 24,254 people underwent COVID-19 test in India. Only 18 people per million are tested for COVID-19 in India. With such a low rate of testing, the doctors and the ICMR are really worried. Without enough tests, which the WHO calls extremely important to contain the spread of COVID-19, it won’t be possible to know how many people are affected and how many aren’t. This makes the country further vulnerable to rapid and unhindered blistering of the pandemic.

Partho Sarothi Roy, associate professor of biological sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, told an interesting thing to The Week magazine in an interview. Dr Roy said that the Modi regime has opted for the easy solution of lockdown out of panic and to avoid conducting a lot of tests. But does India really lack massive testing infrastructure? According to Dr Roy, there are 10,000 such laboratories in our country where the testing for COVID-19 is possible. Now even if we consider that each of these labs conducts one test a day, then at least 10,000 tests can be done in a single day. Dr Roy also expressed his incredulity over the costing of the tests, as the Modi regime has fixed Rs 4,500 as the cost per test, which, he claimed, following an IISER experience, shouldn’t have been more than Rs 700.

Communal polarisation of a pandemic

Both Hindus and Muslims were among those migrant workers who crowded the bus terminuses ignoring the fear of COVID-19 infection due to the government’s indifference. Both Hindus and Muslims were among those who boarded the overcrowded buses and travelled paying anything between Rs 600 to Rs 900 per head. 

Both Hindus and Muslims walked for hundreds of miles to reach their native places when they didn’t get a chance to board a bus. There are both Hindus and Muslims among those migrant workers who are still stranded and starving in different states, far from their homes.

The Yogi Adityanath regime of Uttar Pradesh fogged the poor migrant workers with a toxic chemical without even distinguishing between the Hindus and Muslims. The poor Hindu migrant workers didn’t receive any special benefits from the Hindu nationalists funded by the big corporations, rather, they had no choice but to walk beside their Muslim colleagues, even though they are made to despise the Muslims every day through incessant propaganda.

When the COVID-19 clearly made the people think from the perspective of class, ie, the antagonism between the rich and the poor, the capitalists and the workers, the exploiters and the exploited, when it brought the structure of the society out in the open for all to see, at that very moment, the corporate-controlled mainstream press distortedly publicised the Markaz Nizamuddin fiasco. 

They peddled fake news, vilified the Muslims and even accused the Tablighi Jamaat members of roaming naked in hospitals, spitting at the doctors, etc, to stoke Islamophobic sentiments. Even when, after a few days of such public humiliation of the Muslims, the AIIMS, Raipur, issued a statement to reject the claims made in the press, neither peddling of such fake news stopped nor did any of the culprits apologise for their misdeeds. 

The choice of vocabulary by the mainstream press has been proof of its sheer Islamophobia. It claimed that Muslims are “hiding” in Markaz Nizamuddin, while Hindus are “stranded” in Jammu’s Vaishno Devi temple. Rather than questioning the government for its utmost failures in containing the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading, the press blamed the Muslims for spreading the virus. 

When the people were getting class conscious, then the corporate-controlled mainstream press and the lapdogs of the ruling classes intensified their efforts to widen the communal division and flare-up Islamophobia in the society. The corporate-controlled mainstream press wants that the poor Hindu workers should hate the Muslims for their identity, while the poor Muslims must believe that they are oppressed only because they are Muslim. This instance will remain as a classic example of how the ruling classes exploit religion to seek rescue from any imminent crisis.

The problem of resources and distribution under capitalism

Leave alone a semi-colonial and semi-feudal Indian society, even the developed capitalist states of Europe and North America are unable to tackle the COVID-19 menace at present. It’s not that they don’t have the resources to contain and fight this threat, rather, they have more than what’s needed. Still, such resources, created with the labour of the working class, aren’t utilised. It’s because a section of the people must enrich themselves. The personal interests of a handful of the rich now stand against the interests of millions.

On this topic, we may recall how Karl Marx shredded the theory of Thomas Malthus who claimed that the growth of population is the cause of socio-economic crisis. Malthus considered pandemics useful for the society as they kill the poor, whom he considered superfluous for the society. Malthus asserted that the death of the poor due to pandemics helped in the economic development of society. Marx, on the contrary, considered the people as a resource. By theoretically crushing Malthus, Marx showed that there is no dearth of resources in capitalism vis-a-vis the population, the problem is in the distribution of resources, in the core structure of capitalism. 

Today, despite having adequate resources, each country is lagging behind in containing a common respiratory syndrome-causing virus, COVID-19 and are losing their human resource because the crooked, exploitative and exclusionary distribution of resources under capitalism prevents the allocation of resources in the service of the people as profit always takes the higher seat. In case of India too, we have seen that though perception is created about the lack of resources, there are adequate material resources to help the poor migrant workers in the hour of crisis, yet, what the country lacks are a political will and a concern for the poor —  the most-productive class, the drivers of the society — as the interests of the rich and urban middle-class influence the political decisions. It’s to save these classes that a lockdown is taking place. When it comes to the poor, the biggest killers like starvation, poverty and social injustices never called for total lockdown.

Soumo Mondol started his journey as a student activist in West Bengal. He is a radical Marxist thinker, a left-wing activist who fights for the cause of the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed people.

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