ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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​A Pandemic Parable

Returning Migrant Workers and the Sound of Empty Vessels A satirical take on a couple watching, from the wings, as migrant workers walked thousands of kilometres back to their villages one year ago.

One Sunday morning at the peak of the lockdown this time last year, Mr and Mrs M ventured to the highway to witness first-hand the “greatest spectacle on earth.” Just some days before, wage labourers, industrial workers and a huge population of urban India working in the informal sector had made the difficult decision to leave the big cities where they lived and worked, to travel back home. Given the difficult circumstances, it was, in the words of our leader, “natural instinct” on the part of the migrant labour to return to the safety of their homes in villages; it is also “natural” that big cities are cruel and unforgiving to people who are “no longer useful.” When everything was shut, why must the “useless” workers stay back in the big cities?

In “Swachh” Bharat, relieving oneself on deserted streets would be especially conspicuous, and cause enough to be put in jail. Couple M wondered how long one would typically have to wait every morning to enter one of those relieving dens (community toilets) they had seen in films, each of which catered to as many as 500 people in the densest slums. This was a realisation perhaps more crucial than ones that believed migrant workers could survive on one meal a day, the couple thought. The national leadership too felt that the “migrant workers” (as they came to be called now, which, in short, meant that these workers were not entitled to homes in the cities they worked in) would be better off in their villages. Our villages are still so pristine and so green, entirely outside the mandate of the militant cleaning up of certain parts of some towns for national schemes like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the Smart City mission, and the more militant and mandatory photo shoots thereafter of government officials and public figures with absolutely oversized and useless sweeping paraphernalia. In the villages, the leadership felt, the migrant workers could live on home-grown vegetables, cereals and pulses, and not have to share toilets with 500 strangers (the fact that most Indian villages still don’t have toilets is a separate question and not part of the pandemic discourse) and occasionally withdraw money from their Jan Dhan accounts and stay happily and peacefully till the virus vanishes from the planet.

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Updated On : 19th Apr, 2021

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