The tragedy of 16 strewn bodies on a railway track in Maharashtra on Friday morning has been in the making for weeks now. The Centre and several States have been engaged in flip-flops on facilitating the return of migrant workers to their homes. In the present instance, the workers at a company in Jalna in Maharashtra were walking on the track to their families in Madhya Pradesh some 800 km away after the national lockdown since March derailed their livelihoods. The Centre’s inability to clearly communicate to the public and States the purpose and protocol of the lockdown every step of the way has put people through completely avoidable hardship. This governance failure was aggravated by several States, either due to lack of capacity or incompetence. The sight of an endless stream of migrant labourers, some of them carrying toddlers and the infirm, walking towards India’s poorer regions from its economic centres, will remain an indelible memory of this inept and insensitive approach that had not taken their particular circumstances into account. Under orders to stop their movement at any cost, the police in many places forced them to walk back. This particular group took to the rail track to escape the police, according to survivors.
Though it did not spare any effort to make spectacles out of an unfolding pestilence, each government announcement about the lockdown threw even the educated public into a tailspin, and required numerous clarifications and amendments. To argue that this is a once-in-a-century event that caught even developed countries napping could at best be a tenuous defence. Even after it woke from the slumber and announced special trains to ferry the stranded and starving workforce to their homes, confusion reigned. Onerous paper work and huge costs were heaped on these hapless citizens who manage to barely get by even in the best of times. States acted arbitrarily; courts intervened thoughtlessly. Hunger, humiliation and fear of the disease made thousands of these migrants so desperate that they ventured to walk thousands of kilometres to get home. All of this could have been managed better had the Centre worked with States to map out a strategy to support those who wanted to stay where they were, and organised the return of those who chose to do so in an orderly manner. A huge cost has already been paid in lives and suffering, but even now there can be measures to mitigate the situation. For that, it must have a more open and honest communication with State governments, and citizens. Tough measures may be essential but caring ones are just as vital. This unfolding tragedy must be stopped in its tracks.
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