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Lockdown: where do they draw their Lakshman Rekha?

While the state could not foresee the exodus, the battle against COVID-19 has to be fought both in cities and villages

Shortly after retiring, I volunteered to teach little children at a Corporation school in east Delhi. It was just for a few hours every week, but it was enough to understand just how closely their lives were bound up with their villages.

Nearly all of them were the first in their families to be receiving an education. Attending school was clearly an important part of their lives. There would, however, be long periods of absence when they would suddenly disappear. We understood, as their teachers, that most of them would not and could not be regular. That they would come back after month-long absences, because of a death in the family, or a marriage, or a harvest to help out with.

School was never allowed to come in the way of their obligations to their larger families back home in their villages. It was clear that they were here, in the big city, only because their fathers were plying a rickshaw or a pushcart, and their mothers cooking or sweeping in other people’s households. The government-funded mid-day meal was often their first meal of the day. It was a precarious existence, a fragile toehold.

And yet it was their parents who were critical in making our megapolis function, just as the daily wagers were, in construction and other service sectors.

No anticipatory planning

The question that troubles me, is how and why they went so completely under the radar of the Establishment when the lockdown was announced. Were they so invisible that their migration in thousands could not have been foreseen? Did we take them so much for granted that the thought never even crossed our minds? Why was there no anticipatory planning or any steps taken and communicated before the lockdown was announced, to reassure them that yes, the state would feed them, house them and provide support and medical services? Not till several days after those gut-wrenching images flashed onto our screens of pregnant mothers, and little children riding piggyback on their fathers’ shoulders, all heading home on empty highways and deserted streets. Walking back, with no social distancing and no soap and water to wash their hands.

We always knew that ours was a world of haves and have-nots. But did we ever realise how closely our lives were intertwined? Each one of us who lives in privilege in this country is dependent, to some degree or the other, on someone who doesn’t. On someone who goes home to a cramped space that he or she shares with several family members.

I often wonder how Ujer, or Kanhaiya, or Kanishka, or any of my little students, is faring under the lockdown. How will they manage social distancing, they who cannot comprehend the concept of privacy or afford the luxury of space? Were they also there, amongst those unforeseen tens of thousands, out of a job, out of food and out of money, who swarmed the bus terminal at Anand Vihar or left on foot for their homes?

Will some of those who returned to their villages have carried the novel coronavirus with them? Will they receive adequate medical attention if they have? Will the cases among them be tracked as assiduously as the cases at the Tablighi Jamaat centre in Nizamuddin were?

An all-India battle

Data for our migrant population indicates a figure between 13 to 120 million. The informal sector, that absorbs a significant proportion of them, accounts for about 80% of the total employed in India. These are not insignificant figures. I wonder, is there any State in India that has a Protector for Migrants within our own country? We have several voices speaking up for immigrants into India. How about our own internal migrants? Who speaks for them?

Apart from the possible human toll and the socio-economic consequences of what might follow, the battle against COVID-19 has to be fought both in the cities and in the villages. We cannot leave anyone out. Indeed, we cannot afford to.

If this is to be a battle, then it has to include all of India, and within India, urban as well as rural populations. There can be no accentuation of fault lines, of affluent over poor, of urban over rural, if only for the reason that this is mercifully a virus that neither respects such differences nor differentiates. Disregarding boundaries, it can, and will travel from our cities to our villages and then back again.

Life in the urban bubble

But as of now, here in an affluent part of the city, in the middle of the lockdown, life continues in the urban bubble. We have roofs over our heads, and doors to draw a Lakshman Rekha in front of, even if far too many of us step across it, as Sita once did.

We share, on social media, poems and music that we love, and images of gardens that we tend. New WhatsApp groups spring up, where we discover long-lost friends and promise to meet after the lockdown lifts, for a game of tennis, or a drink at the club. We exchange hilarious forwards and display a quirky sense of dark humour.

Those of us who otherwise follow important developments barely noticed when the Shaheen Bagh sit-in against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act ended after 101 days. The virus has overtaken us all.

Yes, I have my fears. That irrespective of how often I wash my hands for 20 seconds in something bordering WHO-prescribed OCD, irrespective of how many surfaces I disinfect, there are still too many undisinfected surfaces and too many novel coronaviruses out there for me to keep my 86-year-old mother safe. Deep down, there is a primeval fear that it is purely an act of God, or a roll of the dice, if you like, that will determine who gets the virus and who doesn’t. And who lives or who dies.

We sit and wait in our cocooned and socially distanced homes. And we know the waiting will be long.

Sujatha Singh is a former Foreign Secretary,

Government of India.

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