“We would lift and carry him occasionally”, says Vibha Devi, a seven-month pregnant mom about her four year old son Vishal, “but he mostly walked on his own”; seven year old daughter Anjali stands guard over her brother as their parents watch over their life’s belongings, a few canvas and jute bags full, on the pavement barely 200 meters from New Delhi Railway Station. The family of Jitender Sahni, a twenty something construction worker and daily wage earner, had walked for two days from Faridabad in the neighboring state of Haryana, without a shade cover, as mercury hits hundred and more. They were looking to catch a train to Samastipur in Bihar, some thousand kilometers away.
They came to the wrong station. Their names were not on the list for people chosen to board the Shramik Express (“Workers’ Express”) bound for Bihar. That happened because their features-only (not “smart”) mobile could not give them updates on ever changing directives from a confusing array of ‘concerning’ authorities. They ran out money since Jitender lost his only source of income when lockdown began, fifty days ago, sporadic cash largesse is just enough to pay for phone charges and use of public restrooms. For fifty days they survived on food and water handouts. Vibha cannot afford a care her advanced pregnancy requires.
As Rajdhani Expresses (airconditioned premium trains connecting the capital with large metros) leave New Delhi Station one after another, Sahni family lives on the pavement; parents trying to work the phones to get their names on the list, and children ogling at well-heeled middle class travelers rolling in their heavy suitcases on their way to a confirmed berth aboard the Rajdhani.
Sahnis are lucky, but try telling that to them. Some twelve hundred kilometers away near the city of Aurangabad, 16 migrant workers were crushed to death by a cargo train in the wee hours of dawn as they slept on the tracks, exhausted. A group of 20 odd laborers walked for 40 kilometers the day before; fired from their work as the factory became idled in lockdown. They were using railway track as they thought no trains were running and they would escape harassment at frequent checkpoints on a highway. Four happened to sleep on the side and survived, the train driver noticed too late to stop short, the dead were too deep in sleep to hear the rumble.
Last Supper included dry chapatis, remains of which were strewn over the track, amidst mangled remains.
I have argued repeatedly on these pages that authorities in the US as well as in India justifiably had their initial focus on flattening the curve so we do not burden (reasonably) inelastic medical resources with a torrent. It did require that we ramp up production of supplies as we enforce physical distancing. The easiest way to enforce social distancing is a lockdown; it was the silver bullet of choice all over, correctly so. After some false starts and a muddled decision-making process, it seems that we are over that hurdle as a nation, even if scarcity and crisis are bound to emerge locally.
“Experts have jobs. They need to understand those who don’t” – opines Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post. People earning more than USD 100K are significantly less likely to lose their jobs in this pandemic than those earning less than USD 40K a year. People in the top cohort are well adjusted to isolated living, secure in their jobs for now, have fast internet and their jobs can be done remotely for the most part; these privileges are absent low on the totem pole, or in remote counties. Far beyond armed wannabe domestic terrorists swarming state Capitols, and far beyond cliched nail salons and hairdressers, almost forty million (and counting) people are suddenly unemployed even when they are ready, willing and able. Continued emphasis on lockdown baffles them as prognosticators update, justifiably; those losing jobs and a sense of self-worth question considerations that went into an opinion in the first place. Sense of fatalism is widely shared, potent, and, ominous to overlook.
Victim-bashing went on overdrive in Twitter-verse after the Aurangabad accident in India. “How could they be so irresponsible?” “They have no one but themselves to blame”. These are representative of the apathy omnipresent among the (upper) middle class in India against the working class, especially migrant laborers. “They hate to see poor on the roads, cluster of Jhuggis, their naked children, but want them to clean their cars, cook their food, carry their luggage, wash their clothes.” In short, the haves of India have not moved far from the feudal moorings of the country, despite protestations to the contrary. No matter the color of flag of the political party hoisted at election time, the new untouchables are no different in their plight, and very often the same people, than the old untouchables. To a fault, decisions are made by the professional and bureaucratic elite in India. Sahni’s never featured in their minds, nor did a hundred million other migrant laborers.
The first thing to note about a pandemic is that it is not just a medical issue, its social, economic and political connotations are just as important as the death count. Prioritizing one over the other is more an art than science. Pandemic response all over the world has laid bare a class divide that was there; glossed over on a good day and today is not one of them. India prioritized keeping those in the middle happy well aware they define, and drive, public sentiment; it is easy to ignore migrant laborers who may not have voting rights in the first place, or could be bribed for a pittance when time comes. In the US, opinions are formed by those who have a naked goal of preserving their position, no matter their ideological affiliation. None of them lined up at the food banks recently in the US, nor have they been member of the working / servant class in India in a long while.
Sahnis are going home to Bihar in the coming weeks. Many of their cohort have decided against coming back, memories are too raw. Upon arrival Sahnis will meet Vibha’s frail mom, who sent a lifeline of INR 1500 (about USD 20) from her pensions to the stranded family. Instead of bounties from months of back-breaking work at construction sites under scorching sun, Sahnis are bringing back tales of willful rejection. Not that a livelihood will be any rosier in their village, scarcity drove them out in the first place. They have to tell Vibha’s mom of the broken promise.
Home they brought her future bleak. Ditto for millions like her.
[Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA is an entrepreneur in Water technologies, Blockchain and Wealth Management in US and India. All opinions are of the Author alone, and do not necessarily represent that of any organization he may be part of. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission].