It is hard to come to grips with the calamity that unfolded before our eyes on our television screens over the past few weeks, of hundreds of thousands of migrants pouring out of arterial roads of our metros across the country, walking for days with tired limbs and calloused feet, with just one desperate cry : “Take us home.” How could you reconcile yourself to this cruel and conspicuous irony — a strong and muscular nation aiming to be a $5-trillion economy watching mutely a refugee crisis of monumental proportions?
We have our blemishes and our injustices, but we have always taken pride in being a great vibrant democracy because we are constantly striving to redeem ourselves “to wipe every tear from every eye”. Yet, we seem inept and appear to be bumbling, as we watch from the cozy confines of our homes the never-ending, long, arduous march of hungry millions. So, what went wrong. Did our government fail our poor ? Tagore's lines of penetrating insight come to mind: “The world suffers most from the disinterested tyranny of the well wisher... the clumsiness of power spoils the key, and uses the pickaxe.” Did our politicians and bureaucrats use a pick axe when we could have used a key ? Is it possible that unwittingly, our policies and decisions to impose the lockdown were seen only through the eyes of the middle class ?
140 million strong workforce
The migrants are ubiquitous. Their numbers are staggering — 100 million migrant labourers spread across our large metros and another 40 million resident daily wage earners engaged in various vocations. They are the construction workers, courier boys, taxi drivers, painters, carpenters, security guards, cooks, maids, vegetable vendors and service providers of every kind imaginable, who keep us well-provided, happy and warm. Our agriculture today in peak seasons of harvest and sowing depends largely on migrants. They put food on our table. They are the warp and woof of our society. This free flow and migration in such large numbers from one State to another is the true validation of our vibrant economy and affirmation of our multi-ethnic and diverse society. They are the very spirit and heartbeat of India. The Medium and Small Scale Industries and the self-employed proprietary businesses at the bottom of the period, as also the construction industry in our metros, would collapse without this voiceless, nameless army of migrants. The MSMEs and migrant workers contribute 40% to our GDP. So why are we axing the trunk of our economy?
Governments at the State and the Centre are guilty but we the people, who have partaken of every benefit from the sweat and labour of these millions of migrants, cannot exculpate ourselves either. And, the altruism of many of us to feed the hungry, while laudable, will not give them back their dignity. They have lost their dwellings and livelihoods and, along with it, their dignity.
A functioning anarchy
Further, our problems, with our teeming migrant populations living cheek by jowl in their tenements and overcrowded alleys, who need work every day to feed themselves, are different, unique and complex. We are not Europe or the U.S. or even China where the back-end ecosystem is robust, well-structured and organised. We are in the main a largely chaotic people, undisciplined and disorganised. But we are very enterprising and innovative. Beneath all this chaos and confusion and mad disorder there is a vibrant shadow economy which miraculously keeps buzzing and ticking. Economist and former U.S. Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith said 60 years ago that “India is a functioning anarchy.” We still are. So, let’s remember what works for poor people in the West will not work for us here. We must find our own solutions that address both lives and livelihoods.
The government must find every which way to send all the migrants home swiftly free of cost. And it should plan well and find ways to open the economy. And regain the trust of the migrant workforce, without whose participation the economy is unlikely to bounce back.
Captain G.R. Gopinath is a writer a founder of Air Deccan