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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 25, New Delhi, June 6, 2020

In My Own Voice: The Great Migration

Saturday 6 June 2020, by Sagari Chhabra


By now all of us have broken our hearts and moved between rage and despair at the merciless way in which our people are walking for miles back to their villages without adequate food, water or shelter. The two year old child pulling the sheet that covers her mother - trying to wake her up – but she does not move, for she is dead; the seven-month pregnant woman trudging down a highway and a young widow with her child who finally arrives ‘home’ but is compelled to live outside her village; she must eke out her quarantine in the open. There is no place like home but that too is closed to you as we see our migrants being treated as the new ‘untouchables’.

These images make us weep with shame and ask whatever happened to that promise of India when the British were finally compelled to leave and we had sworn that we would give ‘unto the last’ and that this time it would be different?

The Partition was a bloodbath but we assuaged our guilt saying it was an outcome of the divide and rule policy of the British and we had just got our Independence after generations of sacrifice and striving.

This time as we witness the largest migration after Partition, it is we who are solely responsible for the untold misery wrecked on our hapless children, women and men.
Having engaged with three contemporary freedom fighters over the years I got into an argument with a friend who was trying to rank them in terms of who had made the greater contribution. However, I argue they are incomparable and here is what I have been able to glean from them:

The Ruby: She embodies the blood and sweat of the mazdoor and the kisaan and has been spearheading the campaigns that have made a dent. She was behind the ‘hamaara paisa, hamaara hisaab’ campaign which led to the Right to Information becoming an Act and the ability of the citizen to ask where and how was our public money being spent. Aruna Roy also designed and spearheaded the Right To Food campaign which led to the Right to Food becoming an Act and the guarantee of a hundred days of employment to a member of a family of the rural poor.

However, why is it despite the hard-won Right to Food Act the powers that be declared a lockdown and did not think it fit to provide food, water and a minimum cash transfer to our migrant labour that with its blood and sweat enables our cities to survive? The P.M. announced a lockdown but is it not mandatory that the government provide for the survival of those they mandated to be locked down or does one lock them out of their right to life?

Why is it that from these badly organised Shramik trains six bodies have emerged as people collapse from the heat, exhaustion and the sheer fatigue of trying to survive from days and days of hunger? Is this the India that wants to sup at the table of super powers and dine at the Security Council; it will be vetoed out for its shameful neglect of its own people.

The government’s money is our money and it needs to be spent right now in giving food, safe transport and cash transfers to the migrants; in other words, ‘hamaara paisa, hamaara hisaab’.

The Emerald: The woman who has organized and led possibly the longest lasting non-violent satyagraha in the Narmada valley and evoked our conscience of how we are displacing our tribals in an iniquitous model of development. I have visited the Narmada valley several times and she has been telling us how green was our valley while questioning the false model of development that is leading to global warming and climate change. She has used her body as a site of ethical politics by fasting and drawing our attention to the plight of the displaced, much like the old man in a loin cloth did.

Medha Pakar has repeatedly in symbolic acts of communication, informed us we have stolen, usurped and seized the natural resources of the tribals for mega dams. So those who hold the secrets of living close to nature are compelled to migrate to the cities as destitutes - looking for a livelihood.

Medha Patkar has now filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that the Court exercise the mandate given to it by the Constitution to ensure the right to life of our migrants. At the time of writing this the Honourable Court has issued a directive that all our migrants should be provided free transport home and adequate food, as also those walking on the roads should be dropped home by bus or train. However, while I applaud the directive, but with due respect to the Court, could this direction not have come earlier as it would have saved so many from misery and possible death?

The Pearl: A short-statured, frail almost diminutive woman whose soft manner hides a steely determination, she has repeatedly pointed out that poverty is violence. She founded the Self Employed Womens’ Association (SEWA) in 1972 and has given dignity to rag-pickers, head-loaders and seamstresses calling them self-employed and consistently asked us to keep in mind the people who form our informal labour force which as she informed me in a recent interview, ‘is now almost 92%’.

I attended the launch of a book, ‘SEWA Women Living with Gandhian Principles’ in Ahmedabad, just prior to the lockdown. The SEWA women have documented how they embody the principles of Gandhi in their daily lives: ahimsa, simple living and living a life of non-destruction and creation. When a woman lives by her hand-embroidery she not only creates a thing of beauty but is she not contributing a more sustainable way of living than say, a mining merchant? Let us think about this as we make steel mining open to private companies and flaunt that we might be the global alternative to investment in China.

India needs its own model of development and it is time to critique the policies of globalization and place our people at the centre of development. Simple humane things first: every person must be entitled to social security ; food, clothing, shelter, education, banking must be grown and developed within a hundred mile radius. If you can buy and repair your shoes at the local mochi (cobbler) thus ensuring his livelihood, it in turn ensures your safety in terms of controlling crime and public health in the neighbourhood; that is the underlying principle of the hundred-mile connection.
Gandhi by asking our people to weave khadi not only enabled the poor to earn a dignified living but wearing khadi became an act of defiance against the British. His Dandi march was an act of symbolic communication; salt is used by the poorest of the poor and the making of salt was done by thousands thus defying the British law.
Perhaps we need our own concept of the charkha, now. We need to listen to the vision and strategies of those embodying the emerald green, ruby red and ahimsa-white voices – the toiling labour and poor - for they truly are our real treasure.

Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author & film-director. She is director of the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’ (Our History) archives

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