The pandemic and state of the migrant population in India

May, 2020
Vedant Tiwary

Migrants across the globe

The disaster unfolding in different parts of the world and our callous response to the outbreak is a culmination of our overconfidence in our existence as humans & ability to overpower anything. It is commonplace to use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning tools for scenario planning, predicting the disease profile of an unborn and model just about any kind of situation, yet we failed to respond at multiple levels – travel bans, contact tracing, social distancing etc., seemed to be an afterthought.

The COVID-19 outbreak is extraordinary in terms of scale, velocity, and uncertainty. In an unprecedented crisis like this one, the most vulnerable people are hit the hardest. Displaced populations including migrant workers are usually neglected in emergency responses. As compared to the general population they already disproportionately bear the brunt of substandard living conditions, overcrowding, limited access to sanitation and water and poor nutrition making them immunocompromised and easily susceptible to the virus. In addition, restriction of movement and poor access to health services makes the situation insurmountable. Misinformation/ lack of any causes fear mongering and people have been stigmatized, scapegoated and in most cases completely missed out from the equation. All nations have invoked emergency response in the form of lockdown and relief measures for the marginalized, but the ‘HOW’ part is still unfolding. While the dominant narrative has been around social distancing, these restrictions have exacerbated existing disparities in resource distribution in informal settlements leading to many individuals masking their health condition for fear of retribution, further perpetuating local transmission. The disease will inevitably spread to displaced communities, and swift measures and large-scale efforts need to be mobilized urgently to mitigate the short-term and lasting effects on displaced populations and the wider community.

Lockdown in India

The virus has created an unprecedented crisis across the globe, and the impact is even more debilitating in developing economies. On March 24th, 2020 India went into a nation-wide lockdown, unarguably one of the most stringent lockdowns by any nation. India’s top-down approach to the Coronavirus crisis in the form of a strict lockdown was absolutely critical to save the people of the nation. The government understood early on that under no circumstances could they allow India to become the epicenter for the disease since India’s infrastructure was not ready to handle a crisis of this magnitude. The lockdown represents a huge logistical challenge in India due to the population density and income inequality. As the consequences of a disease like this can be catastrophic in a population of 1.3 B people with two thirds of the population under poverty i.e. 68.8% of the population according to IMF lives on less than $2 a day, most of them living in villages and moving around the country for labor, thus India has ~40 million migrant population, mostly invisible and undocumented labor. India has way fewer per capita hospital beds and doctors to cater to a 1.3B population. Low income households and migrant workers are a huge unorganized sector of the economy. No matter how much the Government tries to provide fiscal relief, the containment cannot be left to the government simply because of the sheer population, lack of literacy, cluster living conditions, no real standards for disseminating proper information and minimal digital network, and finally the medical community just not equipped for telemedicine. In such a scenario it is imperative for the community to be in lockstep with the government to expand the reach through community surveillance, isolation and have strategic engagement at different levels as the emergency response has to be tailored for a diverse population, unlike a one size fits all approach. This is where the not-for-profit organizations in India have stepped up to shine the light on the unmet needs of the community and have emerged as a strong backbone of the society to channelize government support and bridge the hardship of the marginalized community. Setu’s work in this time of crisis is an outstanding example for all. This is a recount of the many interviews I have done with migrants and others who were severely affected and received help from Setu’s relief efforts:

Interview with Bala Saheb Deshmukh, a transgender and HIV patient, May 1st, 2020

Bala Saheb Deshmukh also known as Gayatri Devi is a transgender. He got associated with Setu Trust through the control of HIV and AIDS program for transgenders. Bala is a home-based sex worker at Jalna, Maharashtra. During this time, he has received assistance in the form of counselling and medication from Setu Trust ever since he came in contact with the volunteers of the Trust in the year 2016. During the lockdown period Bala was staring at starvation as he had no source of livelihood. He soon fell ill and was running very high temperature. He needed urgent help but was at Badnapur, a remote village, about 30 miles from Jalna and therefore could do nothing and no villagers came to support fearing the worst. Not knowing who to turn to for help, in desperation he contacted Ganesh Waghmare, Setu Trust Jalna (Out-reach worker) and told him about his problem on the phone. Ganesh immediately informed Shakeel Ahmed, Project Manager about Bala’s predicament. Mr. Ahmed in turn contacted the district coordinator MSACS (Maharashtra Aids Control Society), Mr. Gaikwad, who immediately arranged for an ambulance to carry him to Jalna Civil Hospital. He stayed at the hospital till he was fully cured. He mentioned in the interview that Setu volunteers were always available for help during his stay at the hospital. They also provided him food grain kits for a month. “It is difficult to find people these days, who care for orphans, however Setu Trust is a shining example of hope and nobility. I am thrilled to receive your call and be able to speak with you on the phone to tell you my story. “

Interview with Rafiq, project manager Parbhani, May 10th, 2020

Setu Trust partners Maharashtra Aids Control Society (MSACS) for counselling and medication of sex workers to check spread of AIDS and HIV. During the lockdown period special care has to be taken of HIV affected persons as their immunity is low and they are susceptible to common ailments. Setu Trust provides food and medicine to all HIV patients through home visits. During this lockdown period one Tamasha artist (Tamasha is an Indian folk drama and dance from the 18th century, originated as an entertainment for encamped armies), an HIV patient had travelled to Pathri about 25 miles from Parbhani, city, her home. She could not return due to lockdown. In the mean while her medicine got exhausted and she was in desperate need of medication for survival. She approached project manager Mr. Rafique over phone. Mr. Rafique immediately consulted the civil surgeon who advised him to send a photo copy of the prescription. He also spoke to the doctor, who arranged for the medicines. Timely intervention by the project Manager helped contain a critical situation for the patient. Daily food items were also provided to the patient by him.

Interview with Charan Singh, a migrant laborer from Jharkhand, May 15th, 2020

Charan Singh Raghunath Munda, 28 year old is a resident of a very small village in Ranchi, Jharkhand had migrated to Walunj, Maharashtra to work as daily wage worker. He was living with his wife in a small rented tenement in Walunj since 15th , March. Since livelihood is very difficult in his village he would travel in search of work. He had worked at this site two years ago and hence was familiar with the place. This time too he applied for a gate pass to enable him to work at the factory. His application was delayed to due to some error in the paperwork and he was awaiting arrival of further identification documents from his native place. He had very little money to buy provisions and somehow managed to pull on, remaining hungry on few days. On 22nd March he heard about the dreaded Corona disease and the lockdown that would follow. He had no money left. Who could he turn to for help in a place where he knew no one? On March, 26th the situation turned so bad that they did not have a morsel to eat. He was regretting his decision to move to Aurangabad. He could not ask for assistance from his parents who were themselves very poor. Finding no help, he set out from his home, promising his emaciated wife that he would return with food. As he was passing by the factory gate he saw that truck drivers were being served food. He eagerly started moving towards the food distribution center but was chased away by a security guard. He pleaded with him that he had not eaten for several days and must get some help but the guard was unmoved. The Setu volunteer serving food overheard the conversation and called out to Charan. The volunteer gave food enough for the two assuring that he could return to get food twice daily. When Charan broke this news to his wife, she was thrilled and immediately informed her parents that God had taken care of them and that there was nothing to worry. It has been 6 weeks since that day, Charan has been getting food daily and is very so grateful to Baliram Dhere of Setu Trust. He thanks God for leading him to Setu center and would remain ever grateful to Dhere and Setu Trust for saving his family from the impending starvation.

Interview with Sopan, a truck driver in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, May 20th, 2020

Sopan Yashwant Landge a resident of village Chondhi, district Hingoli, Maharashtra has been working as a truck driver for the last four years, transporting motorcycles manufactured at Bajaj factory at Walunj to different states. He returned to Walunj on 21st March after one such trip. By this time the pandemic had gripped the country and a lockdown was clamped on Aurangabad and surrounding areas including Walunj. He had no option but to stay in the truck parking area. He prayed that the lockdown would be soon lifted and he could travel back to his village. There were restaurants where the drivers used to eat but they had shut business. He was carrying enough money but could not buy any food. The currency notes were just paper and useless for him. There were some drivers who had managed to buy some food grains and shared with him for a few days. But their stock was getting exhausted and he could no longer depend on them. He was at the point of starvation and was suddenly reminded of HIV advocacy volunteers of Setu Trust whom he had met on a few occasions. He immediately contacted one of them and told him about the precarious condition that he was in. He got an immediate response from Setu’s project manager Mr. Dhere who was carrying out a survey on how many truck drivers were in a similar situation and promised that food would be available from the next day. True to his words Mr. Dhere called and gave him enough food on the appointed date. There were 400 other people who were similarly served. Sopan was awestruck as he could not believe that there were persons who would go beyond the call of duty at personal risk to help people in need. The volunteers personally supervised distribution of food twice daily. They have been visiting the distribution center everyday to supervise cooking and distribution of food. The entire trucker community is highly indebted to the organization and its volunteers for saving them from certain starvation. Sopan said “I am touched beyond words for the act of charity and nobility of the volunteers, they were really God sent at a very critical period in my life.’ He recounted another glorious act of bravery and forgiveness of Mr.Dhere. Dhere was beaten brutally by the police for riding his motorbike while he was returning after the food distribution one day. He bore body marks of the beating but wanted no sympathy. He had forgiven the policemen saying that they were doing their duty and he should have obtained a travel pass from the government for the lockdown period. How does one describe this kind of humility and forgiveness. I bow my head before him and his Organization which has inculcated a supreme sense of service among its volunteers.”