Story of the poor migrant workers far from home amid lockdown
Even as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the nation to brighten the darkness with diyas, candles, flash lights and torches at 9 pm for 9 minutes on March 5, far way near the Birgunj-Raxual border of India and Nepal, as many as 450 Indians are praying in desperation for dispelling the darkness that has engulfed their lives.
“For five days now these people, including a doctor and his family have been forced to stay inside the Thakur Ram Multiple campus which is a makeshift cramped accommodation, and no one is allowed to go and meet them,” said Aashu Sarraf, a citizen (online) journalist from Birgunj. The Nepal police which is guarding the premises refuses to let in anyone or share any information, while the inmates struggle through the ordeal. Most of the inmates are migrant workers from the state of Bihar and UP who work in different parts of Nepal. Following the lockdown announcement by India and Nepal they trekked long distances to reach the border on April 1, but were left stranded at the border.
The situation is not too different for hundreds of Nepali migrants that are stuck at various border points on the Indian side. The Nepal government refuses to allow them to get back to their homes on the pretext that governments of each countries have agreed to take care of those stranded. “But’s that not true at least from what we see here in Birgunj,” says Aashu.
There are women and children among the 450-odd people who have been locked up inside the premises and with no information available from either the Nepal police or the Indian consulate personnel who have visited the detainees, it is difficult to say whether they have been given proper food and essential medicines.
The fact that the migrant workers have not been tested so far and are kept in virtual confinement along with a doctor is tantamount to a blatant violation of the basic human rights. Not to speak of the international treaties and laws even the constitution of the two Nation State does not allow for forceful confinement without solid reasoning and justification.
The Amnesty International Nepal has already issued a reminder to the Nepal government to ensure that its measure of sealing borders and the ongoing lockdown are consistent with the country’s human rights obligations. The Kathmandu Post, a daily news outlet published from Kathmandu, quotes the Amnesty international as urging the government of India to “ensure that all workers, including migrants, have access to social security and targeted economic support during these difficult times, so they are able to enjoy their right to an adequate standard of living”.
There was no response to queries regarding the conditions of the Indian migrants from either the Indian external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar or the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs after repeated attempts even on their Twitter handles.
The disproportionate impact of the lockdown on the migrant work force
These stories of migrant workers locked up far away from home in unknown conditions and images/ videos of many others trying to swim across the Mahakali river to the far western region of Nepal to reach their homes, speaks of the disproportionate impacts that the lockdown has had on the poorer and marginalized sections of society. And when we weigh our morals and values into all of these, we get to clearly see how the dark underbelly of our governance and our societies stand exposed.
Indian and Nepal share almost 1,700 to 1,800 km border and approximately 5 to 6 lakh Nepali migrants work in India. Especially those living in the borderlands from both sides migrate for work regularly. The migrant labour force contributes hugely to the economies of both countries. According to World Bank’s data on Bilateral Remittance Estimates in 2017 Nepal received $1.021 billion remittance from India and India received almost thrice as much in remittance from Nepal though there is no clear data on number of Indian migrants in Nepal.
In a video taken by Rakesh Tiwari of Record Nepal (an independent digital media) that went viral on twitter Indraraj Khatri one of the three migrant who swam across the Mahakali river on April 1 can be heard pleading with the Nepali police saying, “My house is just over there, my children and family are waiting for me, who will feed my children?” But the cops refused to let him go and instead parroted what the Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal has been saying that the border would remain close until the lockdown ends on April 7.
The Nepal government has ensured chartered flights are allowed to ferry out foreigners stuck in Kathmandu and other provinces while it brought back its citizens stranded in China. The Indian government too had sent out special flights to bring back Indians and NRIs stuck in the US and elsewhere. Most Indians that had to be brought back home after the lockdown was announced on special Air India flights were mostly on holidays and traveling out of the country even as late as the first and second week of March. This writer was on an Air India flight to Vanuatu in the south pacific on March 6 on Air India, chock-a-block with people mostly on a touristy sojourn. Footnote: I was on a professional trip on election observation training and have just emerged from my self-isolation since returning back on March 19.
Compare this to the migrants that are stuck at the borders without proper food and medicines and exposed to high risk of contamination from Covid-19 and other diseases. Let’s also not forget the thousands of migrants who flooded the streets of Delhi on the fourth day of the lockdown in India, setting out on a taking the perilous walk back home.
Uttam Bahadur Bohara, a Nepali migrant from Baitadi, had this to say about his government’s attitude: “Why is my government not thinking about me, when it can think of sending back the British citizens back on flights? How does the government and the PM justify being in power? If they cannot let the citizens who are few meters away across the border. My children and family at home need me.” Such episodes of discriminatory neglect of the poor certainly forces you to contemplate on whether the lockdown is after all for the privileged.
Several other Nepali migrants are stranded at other border outposts at Sunaunli in the Maharajganj district of Uttar Pradesh while many Indian migrants and small traders are stuck near Jaleshwar and 10 other border points under the Mahottari district of province 2 in Nepal. These border points are linked to the Sitamadhi, Madhubani district of Bihar
The paradoxes of lockdown, social distancing and India’s poor
Indian Prime Minister Modi made four speeches so far, one on March 19 to announce the janata curfew, the other on March 24 to announce the 21-day lockdown, then on March 29 on the “maan ke baat” radio programme and finally the one yesterday where he asked for the “at 9 pm for 9 minutes” lighting of mombattis. But in none of his deliberations were there anything substantive mention of plans to reduce the pain of the poor and also protecting them from the risks of exposure. He apologised for “the inconveniences” that people had to face, but he stopped short of saying what his government would do ensure that the millions of migrants and their families would not be left exposed an unprotected.
There’s no denying that the fight against the coronavirus is a collective one where everyone has to take responsibility. Prime Minister Modi has always in all his subtleness has been seeking for people’s indulgence, the first of which were the taalis and clanging of thaalis and then by asking them for their “coming few weeks” for the lockdown and now the “nine minutes”, to emerge from darkness to brightness. It goes without saying that millions of Indians will respond to Modi who ability to strike a chord with large section of the rich, the middle class and the poor is still unquestionable and unmatched by any other people’s representative in the current Indian political landscape.
But the problem with such messages is that it comes with the shades of gray. From Modi to China’s Xi Jinping to America’s Donald Trump, most heads of States around the world are sending out the same messages - to practice social distancing, to go into a complete lockdown and barring a few countries like South Korea and Singapore all others have only veiled warnings and apologies to offer to the poor, the homeless, the labour force and the ones that are constantly migrating across the State borders to eke out a living.
“What can we do when we have no money to pay rent to our house owners, have no money for food, our employers have asked us to go home,” asks Kumar a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh. Most migrant workers across the world face a similar predicament during times such as these and they are usually left exposed, hungry and lost. “Forget standing in a balcony, we can’t even reach my village and my house does not have a proper shed,” is how group of migrants’ workers reacted on being told that he has to do the mombattis and flash the torch on March 5 at 9 pm.
The Indian government has announced a financial relief package and has also started distributing free food to the poor, a gesture appreciated by all. But this does not answer the questions on how the government failed to put in a proper plan in place before announcing the lockdown. Like it or not, we have exposed thousands, if not millions, of migrant workers in different parts of the country and in the borderlands to the risk of infection from covid-19 and this runs contrary to what we intended to do when we advocated for social distancing through a lockdown.
It perhaps does not need rocket science to do an assessment of what needs to be put in place especially for the huge labour force and the have nots. A few relief camps along in the respective States as perhaps Kerala has done, medical facilities and supply of regular food and water would have helped to prevent the trek of these migrant force for several miles and huddling up in the hundreds and thousands in one place or the other and turning such locales into potential coronavirus hotspots.
A World Economic Forum report shows the inter-state migration in India as being close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016. It also quotes the Census 2011 report as showing the total number of internal migrants in the country (inter and intra-state movements) at a staggering 139 million.
While some of the opposition parties and influential critics of the governments are quick to flood the social media poking fun, making memes and delivering lectures on morality, and what should have been, there is visible absence of any constructive argument or any serious advocacy to ensure that those still stranded far from their homes are brought back or given an adequate standard of living wherever they are. Without any doubt the lockdown has been called to save people’s lives, but as things unfold would it not be fair to say that it is still “a privilege.”
Finally, as we debate the collective response call by Prime Minister Modi, let us also hear the voices of the frontline workers. Birgunj’s citizen journalist Aashu echoes the calls from inside the lock-makeshift up where the stranded people and says “spare a thought for them, they also want to see some brightness.” The question needs some soul searching nay knee jerk reaction for we have had enough of that, haven’t we.
(The writer is a senior journalist and a human rights advocate. He has extensively covered South and South East Asia, in particular Myanmar. He can be reached at email@example.com)