The poor believe it was a necessary step. But, if welfare delivery falters, this faith will get eroded.
By Pradeep Bhandari
I have travelled around 20,000 km in the past 58 days in 11 states to study, report, and analyse people’s perception of India’s response to the Covid pandemic. As India looks to limp back to the new normal, the past few months have made me experience a sea of emotions, ranging from despair and helplessness on the face of migrants walking back from Faridabad to Mahoba in UP to hope on the face of migrants sitting in Shramik trains heading back from Mohali to Sultanpur and Amethi.
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Returning to work is not their priority, returning back safely to their agricultural village is. Many factors made some of them walk, and most of them leave their work stations. For the migrants I met in Bapror village in Ambala, Punjab, it was the inability to get regular ration towards the fag end of lockdown-3 that made them anxious to return, while the ones I met on the Agra Expressway, cycling back to Ayodhya were left with no other option as they could not gather enough information to board a train. Most of the migrants I encountered were from UP, Bihar, West Bengal, and Odisha. With every passing day, I could see less migrants on the road and more boarding trains, particularly those returning to their native villages in UP, Bihar, and Odisha. Unfortunately, meeting the migrants from Bengal gave me the gloomiest picture. Not only were they in a state of shock after learning about the damages due to Cyclone Amphan, but they also had to wait the longest to head back to their home state. There is a thin line between despair and anger. The migrants were not angry, but they were in despair. Hardly did a migrant speak vociferously against the lockdown. “If lockdown was not imposed, the pandemic would have caused disproportionate damage to livelihood”—this sentiment echoed in the responses of most of the migrants who I interacted with in my journey. However, this sentiment may not be permanent. The care that the migrants get in the coming days will be extremely crucial in deciding their mood and outlook of the future. If continuous care, empathy, and large-heartedness forms the pillars of migrant welfare in the home state, it will be possible for them to sail through the storm. The present situation demands home states to set aside fiscal prudence and extend their welfare arm for the returning migrants. Even after more than six decades of Independence, no state can claim to have a definite database of migrant population. This crisis has provided an opportunity to fill this hole in public policy.
Most of my interactions with people in the initial days of the lockdown gave me hope. Many were resolute about cooperating in the fight against the pandemic. Villagers were most conscious and careful. The sarpanch took the lead in sanitisation drive, farmers paid labourers in kind by sharing additional produce, and elders ensured no outsider is allowed into the village. A collaborative exercise involving every household in the village has largely kept the Indian villages immune to the threat of Covid. This people-led effort will be tested as the villages get flooded with returning migrants. The success of protecting the livelihoods going forward will also depend on how India does not swing away from cooperative federalism. The situation in Maharashtra and Bengal is concerning, and in Bihar and Gujarat, it needs continuous attention. Barring these states, in all other states, citizens seem to trust elected representatives both at the Centre and in the state.
The pandemic has not just inflicted misery on migrants and the poor, it has also challenged savings of the silent middle-class. I remember my interactions with Shyam, a dhaba-owner in Shahajanpur in Alwar, Rajasthan. Before Covid-19, his daily sales averaged Rs 4,000. Post Covid-19, his personal savings and footfall at the dhaba have both dried up. Ironically, despite this hardship, there was support for lockdown. Many would end up erroneously concluding that infliction of financial and economic pain would have led to an immediate change of political preference, away from Modi. On the contrary, the sentiment is one of stronger belief in prime minister Narendra Modi’s tackling of the Covid pandemic, and the perception is that, like demonetisation, he was willing to endure pain for the larger good. But, the government cannot take this support as a permanent political cushion. The economic package is full of information which is yet to be communicated effectively on the ground. People are waiting to experience the direct benefit of the package. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s biggest strength till now has been his ability to achieve social empowerment at the last mile. This was also the biggest reason for his re-election. Till now, measures such as Rs 500 in accounts of female beneficiaries, free LPG cylinder under Ujjwala, enhanced ration, and benefits under PM Kisan Nidhi Yojana have helped the poor survive the Covid-19 challenge. But, the enormous challenge of protecting livelihoods awaits. The Indian state should keep its guard up.
Ther author is Founder, Jan ki Baat. Views are personal