‘It’s a humanitarian issue, no longer a health crisis’

By Our Reporter
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Migrant workers on the road walking back to their respective states

For nearly a month, ABC reporter Emma Alberici has been working on the story of the moment—Indian migrants—who have become the other face of India’s fight against COVID-19. Alberici tells the story of how the poorest of Indians are coping in this lockdown in Foreign Correspondent to be aired tomorrow night. Indira Laisram speaks with Alberici for more insights into the plight of migrants in India

 The news and images we have been seeing have been soul destroying. What are some of the stark realities of the migrants on the roads?

I have been entirely shocked and despairing at what I have learnt during the research of this story. We have seen migrant workers, who as you well know, migrate from their rural villages to wherever they can find work. I say in my piece that it is ironic to call them migrants because they are born and raised in India, but given the gigantic class divide that exist in India they may as well be from another place. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut down the country with four hours’ notice and he told people to stay inside and stay safe, he was talking to the upper classes. He wasn’t talking to the migrant workers because for those people—they lost their jobs and had no money to feed their children and their families. How were they supposed to stay safe when following the instructions from government could well have seen them die of starvation.

I have seen stories of migrant workers who are committing suicide because they are so ashamed of not being able to feed their families. Others walking 1300 km still today are not home yet to their villages. They are saying they would rather die of COVID-19 in their villages than die of starvation locked inside the cities without money. So, they are making calculated risks with their lives because this has become a humanitarian crisis. This is not any longer purely a health crisis.

We pose the question: is the lockdown more dangerous for certain Indians than the virus itself. And I think the answer to that is yes. For migrant workers, it is more dangerous because they are walking the streets in slippers and thongs, with toddlers on their shoulders and hessian sacks filled with their meagre belongings balanced on their heads. And they are walking hundreds and thousands of kilometres. It is heartbreaking. They have got a little bit of rice in their sacks, they are having to rely on sticks trying to make fire and many of the nights they have been walking because they prefer to walk at night because it is not so hot then.

“I do have some sympathy for the government. Trying to organise a nation of nearly 1.4 billion can’t be easy, they had to make a decision to shut down quickly to avoid the overburdened and overwhelmed hospital systems which we saw in Europe and the US”

These are the stark realities for the migrants in India. They are the hidden 45 million Indians. And this is in a country where more than one in five (of 218 million) live below the poverty line, according to the World Health Organisation; where the average informal worker is paid around four dollars a day. In a place like Mumbai, the country’s richest city, you are talking about a class divide where the average slum dweller will be earning four-eight dollars and those at the financial district at the highest end are earning between 5000-10,000 dollars a day. These sort of inequalities are being exposed by this lockdown.

 The question everyone is asking is: why weren’t night shelters, free food or public toilets put in place for the poor before the lockdown was announced? Can you throw some light on that?

The government has provided 600 million food parcels and in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, it’s been difficult, I think, for them to reach to most in need because people have taken off on foot and tried everything they can to get to their villages. So, it’s not easy to deliver food parcels.

There has been an effort by the government, some would say that it has been too tardy. The lockdown, as you know, was announced at 8 pm on March 24 with only four hours’ notice that the country was being shut down, which, of course, gave the sort of people we are talking about very little time to prepare in any way. And it also seems they had little access to knowledge, so the news of the lockdown filtered through over the next 48 hours after the announcement. We saw those harried scenes of the Mumbai train station where it was just chaos because the government shut the trains down in the first 167 years of its history and people were clambering on to the station platforms only to be told by authorities to go back home. Where were they supposed to go?

Dharavi, another place we looked at, which is Asia’s biggest slum, is a place where people have more access to a mobile phone than access to handwashing facilities. So, when they say stay safe to Indians, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Eighty people in Dharavi share one toilet, so the ratio is one toilet per 80 people. It’s not a simple thing to shut down a country like India.

 I believe the special trains arranged for migrants lacked clarity with many unable to download English forms and so on. How true is that?

Most of the reports say they were charging people a ticket price. The people don’t have any money and they have to make a decision between buying a train ticket or feeing their family and keeping on walking. The kind of choices people are being forced to make during this crisis has been heartbreaking, it really has. And when you see little kids walking barefoot on the side of the streets for hundreds of kilometres, it is really hard to fathom.

I do have some sympathy for the government. Trying to organise a nation of nearly 1.4 billion can’t be easy, they had to make a decision to shut down quickly to avoid the overburdened and overwhelmed hospital systems which we saw in Europe and the US. So far, the country has been lucky enough to avoid those scenes and been able to ramp up capacity to 200,000 beds in ICUs around the country, but then the corollary is some of the largest hospitals in the country have been turned into COVID-19 only facilities. And those who need routine treatment for heart disease, tuberculosis (TB) or diabetes are going untreated. For a country that is already suffering, before coronavirus, an epidemic of TB with 1300 people or more dying every single day – that presents another layer to this challenge.

“Dharavi, another place we looked at, which is Asia’s biggest slum, is a place where people have more access to a mobile phone than access to handwashing facilities. So, when they say stay safe to Indians, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Eighty people in Dharavi share one toilet”

 So, is food shortage critical?

Yes, we feature one of the charities Acorn Foundation in Maharashtra and the government can see that much of job of looking after the poor is still falling to the non-government sector and they are doing a phenomenal job. But again, the need is vast and the capacity to help them is limited. As our doctor in the program, epidemiologist Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, says, it is inevitable that people would die from other causes because of this pandemic because they won’t be able to get treatment.

 Do you agree that migrants are being sidelined in the government’s imagination which will result in them being excluded from any policy-making?

We also interviewed Arundhati Roy, the author, who says the poor have been excised from the imagination of the country, from their imagination of poetry, of books, of civil society. Vinod Shetty of Acorn Foundation, who I talked to about the way migrants were caned and sprayed with disinfectants, said you would think they are the problem to be dealt with rather than the poor people to be helped. And I think these inequities in Indian society have been laid bare during this pandemic.

It’s going to be very difficult for the government to confront the issue in a meaningful way because it’s going to require so much money also to lure people into the cities and the fields where they were working because many of them are just saying they will not return. So, even if you were to offer welfare to them, how do you give it to them when they don’t want to go back. And there are no jobs in the rural areas. It’s going to be really difficult.

When you look at a city like Mumbai in all its beauty and majesty, you don’t see Dharavi unless you look very closely. I am not sure that the government is pleased that the rest of the world is looking closely. It’s not an easy challenge to confront but it is one that has been left to fester for too long, I think. It is the reality of how a city like Mumbai flourishes on the back of the hard work of these people and even if the country has managed to slow the spread of this virus, it really does look like it has, then the poor have paid a very high price for keeping the rich safe.

 The future looks really uncertain for the migrants now?

Yes. If they don’t return that might be better for them but what are they going to do in their villages and how are they going to get money?

Lastly, Modi has received a lot of flak for his handling of the issue? What is the general view of his leadership from your reportage on ground?

I have interviewed Ashok Mallik (policy advisor and additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs) and he is very circumspect. He can see that people will fall through the gaps, and if they have, he says they had no choice but to shut the country down quickly and avoid that run on the hospital system. He did confirm that they rammed up 200,000 bed capacity but he also says that if the GDP is the same at the end of this year as it was at the start, he will be happy.

We all know that it is impossible, the country will pay a very high economic price. They have put 400 billion AUD into a rescue package so far much of which is for the health and well-being of migrant workers. But he fully concedes they are going to have to put a lot more in future to provide that welfare safety net that provides some level of security for migrant workers and the informal economy which make up 90 per cent of the work force.


The World’s Biggest Lockdown on Foreign Correspondent air tomorrow (May 19) night at 8pm Tuesday night on ABC TV and iview.
Read also: India enforced the world’s biggest lockdown. But critics say it’s taken a heavy toll.

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