India is working from home; Bharat is walking home—the short tweet by a friend summing up what we, as a locked-down nation, have been witnessing over the past two months was definitely smart. The wordplay was interesting and impressive. But I am not too sure if it was still adequate to encapsulate the scale of a disaster that has befallen millions of migrants frantically attempting to reach home in distant towns and villages that lie beyond urban India. We have not seen this in our living memory—certainly not since Partition. It is not easy to fathom the misery that the profusely sweating and mostly starving mass of people find themselves in. I, for one, am at a loss for words in trying to articulate their tragedy.
What I can safely presume, though, is that their sufferings are manifold more than our middle-class angst. As the migrants trudge home, they are negotiating unthinkable odds. The absence of proper transport is simply appalling. Cocooned inside our urban comforts, we have been forced at the most to change our daily routines. Though our own future looks uncertain amid job cuts and mounting economic losses, COVID-19 has not yet exacted any toll other than primarily confining us to our homes. In comparison, the migrants are battling to survive in the open, braving hunger, heat, and intermittent police high-handedness.
What is inexplicable is the way they have been left in the lurch. A hurriedly enforced lockdown left them without money and work. Soon, they ran out of food and were forced to seek the perceived safety of homes in the back of beyond they were born into. Insensitivity and apathy have been their constant companions since then. As entire families—the old, infirm and the ailing included—attempt to plod back home, they have been subjected to ill-treatment and untold indignities by the police for violating the lockdown. Humiliation after humiliation was heaped upon them endlessly as they walked, cycled and hitchhiked long distances. They were sprayed with disinfectants and fleeced by greedy transporters for painful rides on the back of trucks and tempos. When they thronged railway stations and bus terminals in a mad rush for a seat, they were almost always treated like cattle. It was truly colossal the way a callous system failed them.
The collective outrage over how badly the migrants were let down has been equally huge. Though those in the government may still be in denial and reluctant to acknowledge the tragedy, there has been no dearth of debates and discussions on the migrants and their plight.
Among the defining images of the agonising lockdown has been that of Ram Pukar Pandit from Bihar’s Begusarai weeping inconsolably on the phone upon hearing his child’s death as he attempted to return home; or that of Mohammad Saiyub, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh, whose friend Amrit Kumar died in the middle of their arduous trek. Their stories have seared our heart. They have even touched an emotional chord in distant places. US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka tweeted recently about the indomitable spirit of a young Bihar girl who tirelessly cycled more than a 1,000 km to carry her ailing father home. It is but natural that the migrants’ march, with its attendant struggle, is hogging the headlines.
But we would be failing them all over again if we forget them now. For the likes of Pandit and Saiyub who have finally reached home, a more uphill struggle to survive awaits, minus assured livelihood. Though the media’s attention span is notoriously limited, Outlook does not give up on a story midway and several of my colleagues—Salik Ahmad, Giridhar Jha, Sandeep Sahu, G.C. Sekhar, Suresh Kumar Pandey and Sandipan Chatterjee—displayed exemplary enterprise to reach out to the migrants in their villages. This issue’s cover story is a reminder of the challenges that the returnees face, and our collective responsibility towards them.