There is a strange coincidence, if not synergy, between some Twitter handles calling for a national government to deal with the Coronavirus health crisis even though the central government enjoys a staggering majority, and the sudden exodus of thousands of casual labour from jhuggi clusters across Delhi on Saturday, March 28, 2020. This made a mockery of the 21-day national lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, and potentially exposed these fleeing families and those they would meet at the end of their journey to the virus, should any among them be silent carriers of the deadly disease.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal bears primary responsibility for this mischief and his government should have been dismissed without further ado, for flagrant violation of the Disaster Management Act 2005. The Lt. Governor and Collectors of the capital’s eleven districts are also culpable for not realizing the developments brewing under their watch, and total inaction when exodus began from their respective areas. A new Lt. Governor will revive confidence in the city’s shaken populace.
The Prime Minister, however, quickly took control of the situation with Sunday morning’s “Man ki Baat” where he warned that those violating the lockdown are “playing with their own lives” and lockdown was the only solution in the global pandemic. He regretted the discrimination against medical personnel who are risking their lives to save others at this critical time, and applauded all those providing essential services. Simultaneously, the National Executive Committee of the Disaster Management Act 2005 under Section 10(2)(1) directed all State and Union Territory Governments to keep migrants who left their current domiciles to return to their home towns in mandatory quarantine at the nearest shelter for 14 days per standard health protocol. It asked landlords not to press for rents for a month.
Chastened after a telephone call from the Prime Minister, Kejriwal appealed to all migrant labour to remain in their current domiciles and not risk catching the infection or spreading it further. He promised to ensure rations and began thermal temperature checks at the bus stand, but Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra said the buses must stop plying and people must be given rations at home.
Such mass movement of people from all parts of the city requires meticulous planning and execution. It is learnt that the city government disconnected the electricity and water connections of the jhuggi clusters on Friday evening, denied rations, and hustled people to get into DTC buses made available at night on the false assurance that the Uttar Pradesh government had sent buses for them at the Delhi border.
The Centre must fix responsibility for the DTC ferrying people all over the city when the service is restrict to staff of essential services at fixed hours of the morning and evening. By the time thousands of persons had collected at Anand Vihar bus stand, it was too late to send them back to their clusters. Many had already been dumped at the UP border, catching Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath by surprise. However, he quickly ordered one thousand buses to pick up the homeward bound, and ordered a 14-day quarantine of about one lakh people who had entered the state in the last three days. This means some began coming from Thursday. All district magistrates were given details (names, addresses, and phone numbers) of the new arrivals, and 60,000 panchayats asked to share responsibility for the quarantine. Uttar Pradesh has also sent nodal officers to 12 States to help persons from UP who have business or employment there.
In Delhi, the national and international media had a field day; usual suspects interviewed poor and hungry persons walking home in the absence of transport, taking care not to ask why they were moving around during a nationwide lockdown. This must be the very nadir of Indian journalism. Al Jazeera spoke with painter Ram Bhajan Nisar, who set off on foot with his wife, two children and eleven others, from Delhi to Gorakhpur village on the Nepal border, 650 km away. He admitted that an overnight bus took the family from the border overpass area on Saturday up to Shahjahanpur district, UP. From there, they got a ride on a tractor trolley, ate at a Gurdwara, and hoped to get government transport to reach their village. Hundreds more have been spotted walking towards Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddha Nagar, adjoining Delhi.
The chief ministers of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have expressed anger at the Delhi government facilitating this huge movement of people across the country in defiance of the nationwide lockdown and without warning to the respective States. This raises the possibility that the well-connected NGOs and left-liberal intellectuals that helped Arvind Kejriwal to rise in the first place might be the brains behind this move. The first objective would be to disrupt the Bihar administration with an abrupt invasion of thousands of families that would immediately need food, shelter, and coronavirus screening, even quarantine. Lack of preparedness on this score would embarrass the Nitish Kumar government in an election year.
Another more sinister possibility is to destroy the efficacy of the 21-day lockdown, so that the Prime Minister has no choice but to extend it further. Failure to resume economic activity and get factories, shops, offices and construction activities going as soon as possible will give the economy a jolt from which it would struggle to recover. It is pertinent that the Centre had announced a slew of incentives for the small and medium manufacturing sector, just prior to the lockdown. This sector is a large source of employment and needs to get on its feet fast.
Can there be any other reason for nudging labour from UP and Bihar to quit the capital? It is difficult to say, but some have observed that in all the turmoil, the alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh – both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas – stayed put. They did not express anxiety about jobs, or food and shelter during the crisis; nor did they have an urge to go home. Some kind Samaritans were taking care of them.
Whatever the reasons for the reverse migration, it has increased the urgency for the National Population Register in order to track migration and job opportunities across the country, which is vital for future economic planning.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)
The Pioneer, 31 March 2020