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Millions walked as India watched catastrophe in 2020


Millions of daily-wage migrants suddenly found themselves without jobs and on the streets when the Centre announced lockdown. For many, walking was the only option. Some traveled for a few hundred kilometers, while others covered more than a thousand to go home. Haunting images of hungry migrants trudging hundreds of kilometers on foot, cycles, trucks, and trains back to their villages would be difficult to erase from our memories.

Sataria Hembrom and six other migrant workers walked almost 1,800 km from Mumbai to reach his home in Chaibasa district in Jharkhand, trekking up to 45 km a day and going without food, sometimes.

On March 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said winning the war against Coronavirus will take 21 days as opposed to the 18 days taken to win the epic war of Mahabharata. He added that while Lord Krishna had guided the Pandavas to victory, the nation was being guided by its 1.3 billion citizens.

On Dec 19, India’s Covid-19 caseload surpassed the one crore-mark, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi alleged that the unplanned lockdown did not manage to “win the battle in 21 days as the PM claimed”, but it “destroyed” millions of lives in the country. More than 96 lakh patients have recovered and 1.46 lakh people have died so far.

The Indian Medical Association (IMA) said 515 doctors (Covid warriors) died due to COVID-19. Dr. VK Paul, a NITI Aayog member, had claimed zero new cases from May 16, 2020. Six sitting MLAs and three sitting MPs have succumbed to the virus to date. The biggest name in Covid casualty has been former President Pranab Mukherjee.

The Supreme Court too effectively washed its hands from this humanitarian catastrophe. The top court declined to entertain a plea seeking direction to the Centre to identify migrants walking on the roads and provide them shelter and food. The court said that it is “impossible for this court to monitor who is walking and not walking”. “Let the state decide.

Why should the court hear or decide?” the Supreme Court said as it dismissed the plea. The decision not to interfere earlier and to have accepted the Solicitor General’s statement that there were no migrants on the road is certainly open to criticism, says the former Law Minister and senior advocate Retired Justice A. P. Shah, said the top court “failed to satisfactorily acknowledge that the fundamental rights of migrant laborers have been violated”.

Finally, on June 9, the Supreme Court directed all State and Union Territory Governments to identify, register, and transport all migrant workers who wish to return to their homes within 15 days. More than one crore, or 10 million, migrant laborers returned to their home states on foot during March-June 2020, the government said. 81,385 accidents occurred on the roads during the period March-June 2020 with 29,415 fatalities, the Parliament was informed.

The Centre said it does not maintain separate data in respect of migrant workers who have died in road accidents during the lockdown. One hundred and ninety-eight migrant workers lost their lives in road accidents during the lockdown period, according to data compiled by the SaveLIFE Foundation, a road safety NGO.

The Union Home Ministry had said the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin locality in March led to the spread of coronavirus infection. Its members were accused of being ‘super spreaders’, with terms like ‘Corona Jihad’ creating a lot of noise. On December 15, the Delhi court acquitted 36 foreigners who were facing trial for allegedly flouting COVID-19 and visa norms whilst attending the event, which had around 9,000 participants.

Some BJP leaders blamed the gathering for the country’s worsening Covid situation — senior functionaries of the party and in the government likened the Tablighis to “terrorists”, excoriated them “for moving around like a bomb” and described the meet as a “Talibani crime”.

India also witnessed intense protests in the national capital against the newly formed citizenship law by the Modi government. This led to some of the most violent communal clashes Delhi had witnessed over the last few decades. Violence erupted in northeast Delhi on 24 February after hostility between the supporters of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and protesters spiraled out of control. 53 people died and nearly 200 were left injured.

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