'Oh god, these workers will now spread the virus! Their only concern was to think about themselves.'
'The middle class was only concerned with flattening the curve of coronavirus and they were not bothered about how these workers live in one room with 10 people or 20 people.'
As the country continues to see images and stories of migrants putting themselves through hell just to reach home amid the national lockdown, activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, filed a fresh PIL in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the Centre and authorities to pay full wages to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act workers for the entire period of the nationwide lockdown.
"The government will have to provide something like the Employment Guarantee Act for these workers or else you will see some huge uprising or unrest," Dey tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com in the first of a two-part interview:.
Before the lockdown began, we sorted out the problems of NRIs coming to India, then the government provided relief to the middle class through the moratorium on bank loans. However, the government, it seems, forgot about our migrant workers and labourers. Why is it so?
We didn't forget about them, but we were careless.
Forgetting is something when you are out of sight. This class is the backbone of the Indian economy and they live in vulnerable situations, which we don't think about.
And when the lockdown began, these migrant labourers rushed to go home and we just ignored this humanitarian crisis. And it just kept getting worse.
The government has certainly shown carelessness, but at least the middle class should have got up and raised their voices for these migrant workers by stating that they live in homes where there is food and space unlike these workers who don't have proper homes to stay in cities and food available to eat.
These workers were told to stay where they were regardless of what the size of their homes were. These workers were hungry, very scared, there was no proper accommodation and they did not even get salaries as they were thrown out of their jobs.
Many people were, in fact, very angry that these workers came out in such big numbers and flouted the rules of the lockdown and didn't practise social distancing.
The middle class has a selfish attitude, Oh god, these workers will now spread the virus! Their only concern was to think about themselves. Lockdown works for people who have a reserve of food.
The middle class was only concerned with flattening the curve of coronavirus and they were not bothered about how these workers live in one room with 10 people or 20 people.
They were not concerned that these workers could not manage social distancing in their small homes.
But many workers were provided food by the middle class and there were many such humanitarian gestures.
Providing food is a different thing. And I am not talking about every (middle class) person being the same. I am talking about a set of people who have influence over policies. There were voices who tried to reach out.
Migrant labourers were deliberately ignored in terms of policies. There were hollow orders passed that industries will pay these migrant workers. This is a terrible situation.
The worst, I must add, is that the situation became communal.
We allowed polarisation and communal propaganda against one community by boycotting sales from that community.
We must stand with all communities in these times, otherwise we will harm everyone.
Now the government is reported to have charged migrant workers for train tickets before backtracking on the decision. What should the government have done for them?
After the first lockdown ended, the government could have given migrants around six days's time to go home by providing them with rail services.
To bring people from abroad is more difficult and expensive than organising trains for migrant workers.
And the government can do things when they want to get things done. Here in this situation they were just not doing it.
Even this time they left it to state governments to follow orders, but state governments cannot arrange inter-state travel and arrangements on their own as they do not have the economic resources.
Food grains, for instance, these people are without Public Distribution System ration cards and now we have enough of food grains in our country, but the message that comes from the government is that we don't care.
National Rural Employment Guarantee Act workers who could not go to work could have been paid like they told industries to pay their workers.