Stop Patronising the Poor, Let Them Go Home

A news reporter found a woman with bags on her head and a child on her lap sobbing. She, along with thousands of migrant workers, was brought to Avadh Shilpgram, a magnificent elliptical building in Lucknow. When asked if this place is prettier than her home in Madhya Pradesh, she collapsed and begged the reporter to let her go home.

As COVID-19 spreads around the world, people across nations are rushing back home – a common phenomenon whenever there’s a crisis. Lakhs of people came back to India, with a hope to get through the tough times with their families. As the prime minister announced a lockdown more than a week ago, thousands of workers earning their bread in the cities also began walking back home. As one would expect, they were stopped by lathis, shrieks and hostility.

State governments announced that shelter and food would be provided. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal asked stranded workers to stay in Delhi. Meanwhile, those comfortably lying on their beds were angry: “What is the problem with these workers? Why can’t they just stay wherever they are? They are going to kill us by spreading the virus.”

But the workers can’t stay where they were.

When the government stopped public transport services, they were left with no option but to walk. They probably insisted on dying with their families, in the comfort of their homes, than anywhere else.

Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, economists who study underdeveloped countries, said in their book Good Economics for Hard Times that it is wrong and patronising to overrule the choices of the poor. As human beings, it is important to value the preferences of one another. Poor people are no exception to this rule. They don’t want to be patronised by the government. In this case, we need to make sure that people reach home, which I believe isn’t impossible.

Also read: Let Poor People Die. Only You Should Survive

As privileged beings, we neglect the choices of the poor. Food and shelter aren’t the only things that help them, especially during a crisis. They long for home where there’s a sense of comfort and belongingness, which for many are found in the villages they grew up in.

The workers too have a sense of dignity, and a charity without empathy would only enrage them.

We often assume that they don’t understand the crisis, but that’s wrong because it’s the poor which suffers the most during such times.

Mass migration isn’t impossible. Hundreds of thousands of people travel with national leaders during election rallies and all the arrangements are swiftly done. Even during the plague of 1994, lakhs of workers fled the city of Surat. In 1918, half of Mumbai’s population – mostly migrant workers – left for their homes because of the Spanish flu. Hence, the present government should’ve been, and could’ve been, prepared for a mass migration.

Community networks can be efficiently employed to test these people once they reach home. Village councils of vulnerable regions can also be contacted. As Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research suggested, 35,000 village councils in 56 potentially sensitive districts should be involved to test returning workers for the virus, and isolate infected people at places available in those areas. Given that the nation is under lockdown, public transport buses can be used to ferry the workers home.

As citizens of this country, we need to ensure that everyone – and not just the rich – reach their homes in times of distress.

Another woman who moved into the Shilpgram said, “This place is very beautiful. All arrangements are done. But we want to go home. We wish to be with our family.”

The ‘Home’ that these people made in metropolitans doesn’t exist anymore. It is taking their lives now. As written by Warsan Shire:

‘No one leaves home unless/ Home is the mouth of a shark’.

Like all of us, these people too deserve to go home.

Kuber Bathla is an undergraduate student at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University

Featured image credit: PTI