There are many ways to find death in the time of Corona. One could run out of vital medicines because of the lockdown, one could die unattended at home due to Corona, one could die in a hospital for lack of ventilators, one could succumb to the virus despite the best medical facility on offer. But India’s poorest have found a completely novel way to die, by walking themselves to death.
This unprecedented, unbearable and deathly march to find life is akin to jumping down a hundred metre cliff to save yourself from a flood or a fire. You are doomed if you jump, doomed if you don’t. The Indian poor are running away from the very cities that they once died to come to. They died many deaths to find a living and now they are dying many deaths to find a life.
It is possible that the majority who have left our cities will survive to tell the tale. However, the violence that they have suffered is bound to linger long after Corona dies away and will surely return one day to bite us as a people. We may end up saving lives but we have already expended a very vital capital of social trust: trust in governments and trust in the people around us
For a moment, let us forget about who is to blame. For the sake of argument I might agree with those who state that this is not the time to indict governments. Perhaps the marchers should not have panicked and stayed put where they were. They ought to have trusted the governments, or their neighbours, to deliver to them. However, as more and more interviews have revealed, they had no neighbours, except themselves, their landlords were evicting them, or not letting them out, and they had no savings or provisions, to last.
These were people who lived off the sweat of their daily labour, they were independent, able, not used to begging or borrowing. They were faced with the choice of either begging or foraging for food from a city that even in normal times is callous and discriminatory against them. They made the most rational choice, to return to a place called home. And there was no way to reach home except to march on foot.
As I write this, more people have died on the road, trying to escape our metros, than have died due to Corona itself. But that’s not it. Just suppose for an instance that all the hundreds of thousands of people that were on the road might have been infected by Corona, even then, most would have survived the virus. Those who are presently on the road, or stranded at bus stops, or trapped in quarantine prisons, or undergoing fumigation like cattle, are dying many deaths still. The indignity, the humiliation, the helplessness and the incrimination that they have been subjected to is enough to impair any soul.
Those who have lived through these near fatal experiences, those who are still alive, have already died many times. This is a gigantic uprootment. It is difficult not to compare it with the great migrations of Partition. Then too people were suddenly forced to leave their habitat, admittedly, of centuries, overnight, and with little support.
I understand that the violence, the massacres and the insecurity during Partition was unprecedented, and that Partition affected rich and poor alike. However, people were then moving, or running, from one country to another, often using public transport. However, this present exodus affects a larger geographical area, involves greater hardships during the journey, and is marked by greater chastisement and retribution at the hands of the state than in 1947. And it is all on foot, on roads that are not made for walking.
These were people who lived off the sweat of their daily labour, they were independent, able, not used to begging or borrowing. They were faced with the choice of either begging or foraging for food from a city that even in normal times is callous and discriminatory against them. They made the most rational choice, to return to a place called home. And there was no way to reach home except to march on foot
Here, people are not running from one country to another, they are running away from places that they don’t recognise as their country. These tribulations, this long march, in some cases the longest ever known by mankind in such numbers, has much less to do with Corona than with the nature of our cities. People running back home lived and worked in spaces that are far from homely. This total lack of trust in our cities, this ‘unbelongingness’, and the insecurity that this generates, tells us many things about the makeshift, provisional nature of our cities.
These are places to live in, not necessarily to die in. Is this not your country that you want to run away from here?
The answer, clearly, hundreds of thousands times over, is no. I don’t know whether this lockdown was the only way to prevent the spread of Corona in the country. I don’t know if the lockdown had to happen could it not have been done with a little more planning, a little more preparation and sensitivity. It is easy to be wise in hindsight. We don’t know what would have happened if such a drastic lockdown had not happened. Governments come and go, governments do what they do. The Indian State, as well as states in India, have not been known for their stellar record in dealing with the poor, with the possible, and now even more notable, exception of Kerala. Surely, what we do know is that the lockdown has already damaged thousands, perhaps, millions of lives, many irreparably.
It is possible that the majority who have left our cities will survive to tell the tale. However, the violence that they have suffered is bound to linger long after Corona dies away and will surely return one day to bite us as a people. We may end up saving lives but we have already expended a very vital capital of social trust: trust in governments and trust in the people around us.
We may end up defeating Corona with these drastic measures, but I fear that Corona has already cleaved the idea of an Indian people — as a people. There is no ‘We the People of India’ in this moment.
All photos by Smita Sharma