How bureaucratic hurdles robbed migrant workers of dignity during lockdown
Historian Dipesh Chakraborty famously suggested that under colonialism, Indians were relegated to the ‘imaginary waiting room of history.’ We were told that we were not yet ready for independence, not yet ready for self-governance, not yet ready to be taken seriously as citizens. Years later, the notorious waiting room returns in a newer, yet equally frustrating iteration; India’s poor are being forced into serpentine queues that lead to nowhere and nothing.
At the Rajkumar Inter College in Banda, we spoke to migrant workers who were waiting to complete the paperwork and testing that would allow them to finally go home to their families. Some maintained a naive hope that they would be done in time to celebrate Eid with their families. Needless to say, many moons have gone by, and they are still stuck, unmoving.
Ravi, a labourer returning from Maharashtra along with 7-8 of his companions doesn’t mince his words.
“We were dying of hunger there, we may die of corona here. We’ve been in line since this morning… We haven’t gotten any food, nothing. We have to arrange for food from our homes, and then we eat. Nothing ever happens here. Now see, not one person has been checked and been allowed to leave yet. We have been waiting since the day before yesterday. Look, they’re sitting up ahead, and the line goes all the way around.”
Govind Das, the revenue inspector for Banda in charge of this testing station clarifies, “There are about 200 people in quarantine now. Some are from far away, some are locals, some are from outside. Now, in half an hour, there are going to be buses to Lucknow and we will make sure people get on board. First, we organise registration. Then, we do a check-up. We even give them food. After they eat, and their bus arrives, we send them on their way.”
While commendable in theory, this neatly laid out plan seems a far cry from the experiences of the people on the ground.
Mohammad Harun despondently states, “The doctors come in at 11, work for maybe an hour or two, and then they leave. We’re just laying here.” Nafeesa, an older woman trying to get home concurs.
“First, we missed our bus. The collector had sent the bus to pick us up. There were about 90 of us. There are a lot of us who can’t walk, and so we thought the truck would get us home quickly. But, we were made to get off by policemen. They got us off, and sent us here. Now that we’re here, our children are falling sick, they’re crying. There’s no certainty, we don’t know when we’re leaving — we’re leaving today, tomorrow, today, tomorrow. We don’t know. We can’t get home,” she says.
The endless deferral of answers and of homecoming contributes to the increasing uncertainty around the lockdown and what it holds for India’s less-affluent; after all, Orwell and this lockdown have taught us that some animals are ‘more’ equal than others.
While long queues and bureaucratic obstacle courses are not new to the subcontinent, the last few years have seen an increasing incidence of these outdated apparatuses. Beginning with the stampedes and snaking queues that followed the government’s demonetisation announcement in 2016 that delegitimised notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denominations, these queues symbolise a distinctive attitude towards the public: The government will do as it pleases without any notice or intimation, and its citizens must grin, wait, and bear it.
After all, it must be for the greater good, correct? The recent Coronavirus lockdown has exacerbated this attitude. The initial 21-day lockdown was announced with barely a 4-hour notice for a population of 1.3 billion who were asked to pack up their lives in lesser time than they were given to prepare for the lighting of diyas and banging of thalis.
Unsurprisingly, this announcement led to crowding and queuing in front of essential stores like grocery shops and pharmacies — a move which backfired when considered alongside the emphasis on social distancing and staying at home that precautions against the virus mandate.
In fact, our reporting in Varanasi highlights how the swelling crowds have led to the discontinuing of ration distribution centres, with the government opting to deliver rations to people instead, to varying degrees of success. Although lockdowns across the world have had their fair share of government mismanagement, in India, this mismanagement is couched in the language of inevitability, national duty, and apologies.
If anything, this lockdown has proven that Indians have turned waiting into a competitive sport. We spoke to the people lining up at the Kashi Ghumti Grameen Bank, some of whom are waiting (yes, again!) to collect the princely sum of Rs 500 promised to them by the government under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna.
Under the subsidiary stimulus effort of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna, women from lower socioeconomic strata of society are guaranteed Rs 500 per month for three months to ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on their livelihoods. However, the lockdown perversely mobilises the old adage, ‘good things come to those who wait.’
Sadhna Devi says, “I have been here in line since 3 am. I have been coming here for six days, and today I decided to come at 3 am. Finally, after six days, I got the amount today.” Not to be outdone, Rekha states, “I was coming at 6 am for the past few days, but there were so many people that my turn wouldn’t come, so today I thought I’d try coming at 3 am.” Similarly, Seema Patha chimes in, “I’ve been standing in line since 6 am, leaving my small kids behind at home just so I can come here to get some money to feed them.”
Rekha Devi is visibly frazzled when she complains, “We have been coming to the bank for 3-4 days, standing in line from 3 and 4 am, and we’re still not getting any money. What will we eat?” If waiting is the name of the game, then Gaura, a resident of Kala Bazaar lays out the rules.
“The rule is that the person standing inside the circle will get the money, others will be sent home. To get their spot in the circles, people line up here from 2,3, 4 am, and that causes a lot of problems.” Sumaru, another resident, furnishes us with some more insights, “If we want the money, we reach here before dawn and stand in line. So despite getting in line at 4 am, most of us don’t get the money.”
A candid chat with Deenanath Yadav, a bank official, is revelatory. To address all the people waiting, he says, “All I’m asking of the people coming here, is that they come in a civilised manner, stand in the circles as per the rules, get their money and leave. Please don’t cause an inconvenience here or form crowds.”
This request seems to come a bit late in the day, but when probed about the reasons behind the snail-like lines, he says, “When we open the bank at 9:30 am, there is already a big crowd waiting. I don’t even know when they started forming a line. It’s been hectic for the past few days, but we give out money for as long as we can. We work from 10 am to 2 pm, and take a lunch break from about 2 to 2.30 pm. After lunch, we keep working, till 3:30 pm, sometimes even 4 pm. There’s only one counter here. Yes, it’d be of great help if we had one more counter, with one more cashier.”
Clearly, then, the system is overburdened and unprepared to make good on its commitments to its citizens. The solution here isn’t to insist that the citizens keep waiting while the system catches up, but to emphasise planning, grassroots-based policies, and effective implementation before major announcements that impact the lives of India’s countless labourers and rural citizenry.
On the other hand, one could continue to feign ignorance and pretend like everything is fine, even when the system is collapsing, like the manager of the bank, Nishant Shrivastav, who says, “We haven’t been informed of anything like this happening. We come to the bank at 10 am and start our day as normal.” However, he too rues the lack of resources at the bank.”
Unfortunately, we do not have the resources right now to do anything. We only have one computer and limited staff, just two clerks.” We cannot resort to extolling patience as a virtue or as a national duty when people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line. The fact that our public institutions are straining at their seams means that we need to do better. Hollow apologies won’t cut it; we owe our citizens their time, respect, and dignity.
Co-published with Firstpost
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