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Walking in search of a straw of hope

By Tensing Rodrigues

I know you may find this story quite outdated but I am deliberately presenting it as we saw it being enacted a couple of months back because nothing has really changed. The migrant workers may be returning back in hordes now but we shall drive them back the moment we are in the next hotspot and that will be even more tragic. Therefore it is even more relevant now.

  Perhaps one of the most important economic lessons of COVID crisis was that it is necessary to bridge the gap between ‘we’ and ‘they.’ Between the India to which most of us belong and the India to which the 126 million migrant workers belong. We are the government servants, private employees, businessmen and professionals, elected representatives, ministers and all of us who did not get thrown out of their houses or did not have to go hungry at least for a day during the lockdown. And the others are they.

   It is not about poverty alone. It is about the basic premise on which we and they work, earn and live. We work and earn. And when we cannot work, even then we earn; so we live. They too work and earn but when they cannot work, they do not earn and so they cannot live.

  The crux of the problem is that we are the ones who take all the policy decisions; and they have no part in the decision making. It is not surprising therefore that there is a clamour for more and more lockdowns; let them go to hell. Just once in five years we need them to validate our existence what we call in our language “kumkvacho aadhaar.”

  But the two, we and they are bound in an economic relation. In the long run their work is critical for the survival of both. How long can such a fragile relationship survive? Can we save it? The tragedy that has occurred was absolutely unnecessary. Can we avoid it in future? Can we join hands to create a support system to ensure that such a tragedy does not repeat? A purely non-governmental and non-political effort?

  I know the problem of migrant labourers is much less in Goa. It could be because the wages in Goa are relatively higher. But if we want to make a beginning, it would be easier to begin from home turf. And let us base it on something closer to our heart or should I say closer to our soul. Something where we are more likely to maintain sanctity of our motives.

  The beginning should be made in the villages which are close to the towns, as it is these that are likely to have a higher concentration of migrant workers; or along the beaches. All these villages are likely to have either a church or a temple or both. Under the aegis of the temple or church, or both, independently or jointly, after all both have the same objective – can we undertake a project to create a support structure which will reduce the chance of such a tragedy again?

  No, I am not looking at solving the problem; I am not looking at avoiding the repeat of such a tragedy again. That may be too distant a goal. But I feel even if a few lives are saved, we would have achieved a lot. The best of good work remains undone because we consider it too small; that it can make too small an impact. But I often ask myself, is one life too little? After all I am only one life; do I consider it too insignificant to save? So, if each one of us can save just one life will it be too little?

What is needed ? A place where we can have say 10, 20, 50 tenements which can be rented to the migrants for the going rent; no charity, for in good times they can afford to pay. All conditions apply. Everything else will remain as usual, except for the fact that in a crisis like the one we are in today, they will not be driven away. If they can have a shelter, the chances are high that they will find work sooner or later and earn and pay us in a reasonable time. Our efforts to raise resources will have to continue even in good times; including a contribution from the tenants in those tenements. Like the ants, in good times we will gather our provisions for the rainy day. Till that unfortunate day when the sky comes crashing down. In such a situation they will get a place to stay and three meals to live on.

  We have to explore the possibility of reducing our risk/liabilities through insurance. Even government money can be received; but without any strings attached; no politician or government official will have a say in the project. Let the government give the money and forget it; if that is not possible, just forget it, we do not want the money. One thing is important to realize : the migrant labourers began to walk to nowhere, not only because they had lost their homes and their food; but because they had lost hope; because they had lost faith in us.

*The author is an investment consultant. Readers can send their comments and queries to

tenala@gmail.com

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