Migrant workers were the soldiers defending the trenches in the battle against COVID-19, taking the brunt of enemy artillery fire. Cut off from supplies and reinforcements, abandoned by their seniors (thekedars, local community and government), they fought on for the cause. After some sixty days, their morale collapsed and they began the retreat, similar to the kind medieval armies faced when conscripted peasants headed home for the harvest in the middle of a war. They did not revolt, betray the cause or indulge in violence – just gave up individually and took the only option that seemed open to them.
For the government, the lockdown was a proactive measure against the pandemic, which required above all that ‘community transmission’ be prevented as much as possible, particularly as all similar precedents pointed to mass deaths on an unimaginable scale. Once the lines could no longer hold and the retreat started, the strategy had to change from the proactive one to helping those in panicked retreat. It has naturally taken time to transit from one to the other, particularly if the rescue has to be conducted in orderly fashion, ensuring the principle of containment is enforced as much as possible. So, the special trains, airlifts, state level transfer by buses have been unleashed and are building momentum. This, however, has increased the demand for transportation back home, putting immense pressure on the system. It can be expected, however, this process will be functioning smoothly within a couple of weeks.
It must be remembered in this context that the Union Government cannot be expected to be the first responder in matters that have a local origin and context. There are many places in the country where migrant and other workers are being well looked after, while they have suffered enormously in others. There is no one template upon which to judge these matters. As such, it is the job of the local administrations and state governments to remedy matters as best they think fit. It has been a huge failure where governments have washed their hands off the migrant problem and left it to the ‘home’ states to deal with it. The least they could have done was to coordinate with the Centre to chalk out a plan on dealing with the crisis. Instead, there has been resort to partisan politics, losing sight entirely of the larger picture – the battle against COVID-19 and the urgent need to restart the economy. The very states that make so much noise about federalism and the rights due to them were the first to abandon their responsibilities, leaving everything to the Centre. Hopefully, when the time comes, they will be called to account for this by all concerned.