Why India’s Migrant Labourers Fill Me With Hope

May 18, 2020 | Shalini

FILE PHOTO: Migrant labourers walk along a road to return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown in New Delhi in March 2020


I have lived in India for the past five years. When I left my country to work in the development sector here, I was gung-ho about being able to live and work in a dynamic and mystical country like India, a large part of whose population is aged under 30.

However, as I went through the paces of living, experiencing, subsisting and surviving in India, I developed mixed feelings about this ancient land.

I was still in awe of its spiritual and historical past but the treatment meted out to me by intrusive people with no concept of privacy and most still saddled with misogyny and racism, made me question – countless times – my decision to live and work in India.

From landlords who would constantly peer into my personal space to well-meaning but very irritating colleagues who would come on to me repeatedly, I bore the brunt of the vastly-different social and personal dynamics (when compared to my country) in India.

I navigated the labyrinth of things deemed socially-acceptable, especially for an expat, and the political correctness of everyday existence. Several times, I was on the brink of giving it all up and going back home. I was fed up and fatigued by the constant need to do what was ‘expected’ and which did not put me in the spotlight (much against my will).

Rapes of minors, sexual crimes against women, female infanticide, domestic violence, arranged marriages and character assassination — all this and more was tilting the balance in favour of me quitting India and trying to find solace in the tried and tested which defined home for me.

And then, the coronavirus pandemic happened. Which led to a nationwide lockdown and everything came to a reluctant halt. At first, I didn’t believe that this was happening in a bustling, chaotic nation of over 130 crore people.

I half-expected it all to come crashing down or for riots to erupt as people just didn’t know how to stay still, let alone stay at home for weeks on end, with no access to parks, shops, stadia, malls, cinema halls, restaurants and other accoutrements of urban life.

Could the Indian psyche cope with such a drastic measure as a nationwide lockdown? Would a notoriously-unruly society find ways to put collective interest first and relegate selfish habits to the background, for once?

Several such questions kept me awake at night and I wondered how long before India implodes….

But even I could not have expected the way less fortunate Indians, mainly the working class and the poor, would respond to this deadly viral pandemic.

At first, it was a trickle. But then, the spectacle of hundreds, then thousands, of migrant workers trying to go back ‘home’ (in their own ‘motherland’) would confound me, astound me and then leave me questioning my attitude towards ordinary, disadvantaged Indians forever.

To be brutally-honest, initially, the gaunt, brown-skinned, sunburnt faces of these migrant labourers seemed to me to resemble the Nirbhaya rapists and murderers. Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I could not help but wonder what mettle they possess — attempting to go back to their villages in the hinterland.

To go back by any means.

On the roofs of buses, in the back of trucks, by foot.

It was when pictures and visuals of these lakhs of migrant workers heading home on foot began coming in, that my scepticism and frankly, aversion, towards them and ‘people like them’ gave way to incredulity, followed closely by pity and then, wholly unexpectedly, to grudging admiration.

Carrying their meagre belongings on their arms, or in wheelie bags or balancing them on top of their heads, these hardy women and men (and their children) trudged along on deserted highways in the scorching heat of the Indian plains.

Not a soul to help them, all the middle-class ensconced comfortably in their AC homes, the government merrily-oblivious to their plight, the NGOs and charitable institutions nowhere in sight — yet they kept on walking.

Many could not survive the impossible journeys — without food or water, several succumbed to exhaustion and died enroute, others a few kilometres away from their homes. Some hapless ones sleeping on railway tracks were crushed by a goods train, yet others became victims of road accidents and/or fraud by opportunistic truck drivers.

But they did not stop walking.

They did not have the option to do that.

Several of them seemed heart-breakingly resigned to their fates. “Better to die walking towards home than to die of hunger and starvation in cities,” they said.

Their wealthy, penny-pinching landlords kept demanding money (which the daily wage-earning labourers didn’t have, after two months of total lockdown), then threw them out and left them to die, literally.

Where are all those charities, all those NGOs, all the labour unions, who profess to speak up for these migrant workers, I wonder? Hibernating in their DDA flats or Lodhi Road bungalows with Das Kapital and Animal Farm?

The Lockdown (now being called Lockdown 4.0) is another two weeks away from getting over. Some trains are being restarted, some buses have begun plying, some state governments have arranged for transport for the migrant workers.

Yet, they continue to walk. They know nothing better to do. Hungry, starving, famished, fatigued but not wanting in spirit and still hopeful of getting ‘home’.

It is this spirit of the Indian citizen that I bow to and salute. It reinforces my faith in and love for India and its place in history. A nation is only as strong as its people and if these hardy, faceless lakhs are anything to go by, I have hope for India.

As long as there are people like these, India has good reason to believe that its future will somehow be better than its past. And I am glad I lived to be part of such a time in this country’s journey.

I’m staying on, and I’ve never felt surer about doing so.