Thursday, June 20, 2024

Invisibles walked home

It was March 30, 2020, the fourth day of nationwide lockdown declared by Prime minister Narendra Modi due to Corona scare. I finally got a ride to Noida were about millions are on the road stranded in their pursue to going home. Government is trying to overcome the migrant crisis by arranging buses, claimed Indian news agency. 

Modi who was initially criticised for his naive action plan to fight the pandemic, in his second attempt, declared the nation will be shut down for 21 days within four hours from the moment he addressed the nation. That was it. Obviously, it wasn’t a press meet to get the details clarified. The slap of lockdown, a measure to control the spread of the virus, unleashed fear of starvation to millions of migrant workers across India. They started to walk back to their villages with their belongings. When India’s legitimate citizens went home, the invisible class appeared on the streets. People shouted from balconies to stop them, not in sympathy but in fear of spreading the virus.

Beyond that, international media’s saw them bringing disgrace to the trillion economy. Days after Financial aids for the poor was announced. But people kept walking, they weren’t confident about a government which didn’t see them before taking such a hard decision. The schemes were announced. Shelter home details were shared in social media. It was forwarded from one room to another but never stepped out on the road due to Modi’s ‘Laxman Rega’. People kept walking.  

Hundreds detoured towards Anand vihar bus terminal with the hope of catching a bus to their place. The night before photos of thousands crowded at the terminal floated in social media. I met hundreds of them who were waiting for a day. Buses were lined up and masked clusters of humans fought for seats. Men and women jumped road divider. A policemen came and declared if I weren’t standing there with a camera, he would have disciplined the flocks. 

By afternoon everything was cleared outside the bus terminal. Officials gave bytes to reporters as constables handled the dozens who were seen around. People who came late got stopped everywhere. It was a maze, the left out walked back and forth. 

How did this population accumulate in India? To say India is not the only country with poor. It just has the largest majority below the poverty line. The nation’s complex diversity, which decayed the welfare of the community, became the feature of Indian nationalism. Unity amidst diversity was an imposed spell for the generations to come and build the concept of a nation. Yet crisis like this flay the reality hid in the hypernationalism which influx the deterioration. 

People eat grass to keep them alive after two days into lockdown. About twenty people died during the displacement. 

All state borders were closed during the lockdown. The call came informing all the buses which were supposed to enter Uttar Pradesh and take those miserable people to their districts were stopped at the highway less than five kilometres away. One of the government, state or central has pulled out a prank on hundreds of its illegitimate citizens. People were dumped on the highway and asked to return from wherever they were coming from. 

There was no official to clarify the betrayal. People had no place to go, they had vacated their rented houses, returned from halfway to get in the buses and reach home safe. The faces who climbed those buses and smiled to us were all back on the road in agony. Hundreds carrying their livelihood and children started to walk back. Nobody got a chance to sit and plan. Police with batons chased whoever stopped. The long deserted Delhi-Meerut highway, with abandon apartments and Delhi’s monumental garbage mountain on the sides, were filled with desperate people without directions.

Relief workers stood on the sideways with food and water. They fed the hungry and gave them extra for the journey ahead. When enquired police suggest people go to shelter homes. Nobody told them where are these shelter houses. It was everywhere, but for how long?  Why didn’t the authorities take them directly? 

People vented their anger on me with overwhelming questions. They showed their miseries, bruises on the legs and tears on their children’s face. We all walking with no response, just questions to each other. 

For the administration it was disobedience, the government would have taken care of their welfare if they would have waited back home. Some said these people are opportunist trying to milk the government in crisis. A women came out of her duplex and calmly screamed at the walkers to find a shelter home. When they refused to give her ears, she cursed them for being arrogant. But she doesn’t realise there is nothing worse to happen. The social structure India has embraced in the last three decades with liberalisation and birth of a long frequency middle class brought them on the road. When the would omit second world country, India Omitted India’s lower class/caste. 

The police blockades were suddenly removed to ease the way for a couple of semi-sleeper luxury buses. The poster on the front window said it’s on duty for the French embassy. Foreign passengers crept through the curtains of the air-conditioned bus and took photos. The grant dump yard of Ghaziabad was in our background. Children looked at those buses with their solen feet trying to figure out how did they get a ride. 

Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdulla, an award-winning journalist, is the Deputy Editor of Maktoob.


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