COVID-19 lockdown: Why some workers lost patience

The rich now trusts the government most, while the less privileged experience an absence of the same  

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Saturday 06 June 2020
Returning migrant workers queue up for bus. Photo: Vikas Chaudhury

On June 8 India will enter its first phase of ‘unlockdown’ — after four phases of lockdown to curb the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — the Union government has announced. For more than two months the country has been overwhelmed with the biggest-ever exodus of workers to their respective states from business and manufacturing hubs after the ongoing national lockdown was declared to fight the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

The urban India engrossed within its limited but privileged world realised the scale of India’s informal workforce. They also realised how fragile a life these millions of workers have been pursuing and a critical part of their formal economy. In absence of any transport facilities, thousands of workers just walked hundreds of kilometres along with families to reach home. And their experiences — torturous and contrasting to the image of an emerging economy — shook everybody, everywhere.

The Union Home Minister Amit Shah, however, blamed the returning workers for this situation. In an interview to a television channel he said: “Some people lost patience and started walking on the roads.” Earlier, many political leaders mostly belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also discounted the gravity of this situation. But Shah’s reasoning is troubling, and has rather the answer to the question one might ask: Why workers lost patience?

To begin with, a broad profile of the people who lost “patience”. They are mostly informal daily wagers sustaining an entirely cash-based economy in urban areas. They left the villages, both out of distress and choice. In both the cases, economy is the base on which they took this decision. In cities, they have to earn every day to sustain and also to remit a little saving back home for the survival of the extended family.

They don’t enjoy job security like the workers of the formal economy. When the lockdown forced all businesses to shutdown, they lost employment and also earning. So, the question: What could have they done?

In such situations, very similar to a severe disaster striking one instantly, the workers had two options: Staying back, hoping that business would resume; or leave for home. In case of the first option, there must be some certainty over when the business would resume. India’s lockdown has been extended for three times. In such uncertain governance structure, the workers opted for the second option. That is why out migration picked up after the second extension of the lockdown in April.  When it started there were no government plans to arrange transport to ferry them back.

But in both the options people needed something that government could only ensure at this emergency time: Assurance. Or, in other word a trust on the government to rescue them in such situation. People didn’t have the assurance and also the trust on the government. They started their escape from the jobless situation to a place called home where at least they have the assurance of a roof on head.

Shah is not factual in his assessment when he said “some” people lost patience, or as explained above the trust. It is a mass exodus, as the government realised later when it finally started trains and buses to ferry them. Does this mean an entire workforce accounting for a significant percentage of the country’s population lost the trust on government?

‘The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic’, based on a survey of over 13,000 respondents belonging to educated and well-earning class in 11 markets that include India, shows that trust on governments has hit the highest in last 20 years. Some 65 per cent of the respondents said that they trust the governments would help them out of the situations due to the pandemic.

This is a trust level that was seen after the World War II. At the same time, survey also found that 67 per cent of respondents believed that less privileged and poor people disproportionately suffered due to the pandemics.

This is a verdict we must accept with a scary note. When the privileged could see the inequality in our governance, and they need the government the most in this situation, how could daily wagers wouldn’t have lost the patience? 

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