By Tensing Rodrigues
The Covid crisis will be gone some day or the other. The virus may last longer, as many other have but the crisis will soon get over. But there are a few lessons that we need to not forget, ‘gantthik marun dovorunk zai’ as my grandmother would say. Or else, we will be condemned to repeat the history. And I am talking only of the economic lessons.
The first and foremost is the mess we have made of the migrant labourers. I will come to another type of migrant labourers later but first the labourers from India’s villages who were caught on the wrong foot by the lockdown. This is a lesson we have got to learn at all cost because the cost of that mess has been huge and it is still growing; growing far faster than the disease.
Those numbers do not appear on the real time score boards on the TV or online sites. Nor do they get printed on the dailies. Frankly they do not even cross our mind. Because as Sr Thecla Pereira, a presentation sister, says: “India can be cleaved into two. Visible India that belongs to most of us and ‘Invisible India,’ a part that is unrecognized, un-feted and dusted under the carpets most of the time, belonging to a host of 126 million migrant workers who work silently.”
I would call it ‘We’ and ‘They.’ This is not a political statement; it is a stark reality, an invisible reality. As long as all went fine, it was a win-win situation; we got our work done and they got their daily bread. But when the time came to choose between ‘we’ and ‘they’, the hell broke loose.
Let me share with you the story of Bappa Shivrak. One day, just as the lockdown had begun, Bappa phoned the labourer Abhajit who usually did his odd jobs, to call him for some work. Abhajit told him that he cannot come for work because he is leaving for Bihar. Bappa asked him how he is going. Abhajit said walking.
Bappa realized the seriousness of the matter. He told Abhajit to just see him and go. When Abhajit came and related his woes, Bappa told him, “Thik hai, ajse aap yaham kam karenge; aur yahim rahenge, aapke bibi aur betti ke sath. Lockdown khatam hone tak aapko aapki hajeri milegi.” Bappa had calculated, six hundred per day for the next three months, how much will it come to? About Rs. 45,000 just as much as the cost of their planned trip to Kulu-Manali.
Bappa gave Abhajit six masks. Next day a neighbour saw him working behind Bappa’s house. For concealing his identity let us call this good neighbour Dedd Shanno, or Shannu for short. He came and told Bappa that making Abhajit work during the lockdown is against the law. When Bappa ignored it he told Abhajit that he is putting his life in khatra.
When nothing worked he ranted the whole day about how anti-social people have become. To cut the long story short, Shannu is presently in the ICU of a hospital in Margao; he had a massive stroke, possibly with the tension of all the anti-social activities happening around.
No I am not blaming Shannu. He is part of ‘we’ to whom ‘they’ are insignificant dirt specks on the glasses. We do not understand their language because we do not understand its vocabulary. Whether its Bhojpuri, Maithili or Odiya, it is alien to us. Some days back, some migrant labourers were trying to register for a ride on a Shramik Train to some station within walking distance from their home.
When they presented their Aadhaar Card to the official on duty, he joked “Are tumi Goenkar mhare tumchem Aadhaar card Goenchem mhare. Hi train tumkam num!” A few weeks later a veteran activist cum politician raised the issue of these migrants holding Goan documents. Well I do not blame them; like the rest of ‘us’, they cannot understand the reality of this ‘scum’ called ‘they’.
Most of us, the government servants or private employees got our salaries during the lockdown. Most of those who are not salaried but earn from business or profession have a less or more buffer to survive for a month or two so we do not understand what it is not to have the next meal, what it is to be thrown out of the house for not paying rent, or because the house owner feels you may not be able to pay the rent the next month. What option did the migrant labourers have but to walk their way to death?
But the big question is, was this unavoidable?
*The author is an investment consultant. Readers can send their comments and queries to firstname.lastname@example.org