An “autopsy of the corpse of neoliberal policy,” National Highway 1, and Parle-G Biscuits

[Priya Gupta with Kunal Chaudhury] Wednesday, May 27, 2020

As India entered into lockdown at the end of March, millions of people lost their jobs. In April 2020 alone, 122 million jobs were lost. Millions of people working as domestic help, as drivers, as day laborers, began a long journey back to their hometowns. Trains were stopped, buses were stopped, and for most people there was no choice but to walk. Anywhere between 300 and 1,000 miles, in 103 to upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, 39 – 43 degrees Celsius.

The images from their journeys recall those of Partition in 1947.

Speaking on Democracy Now on May 22, 2020, journalist P. Sainath characterized the pandemic as having “presented us — and, I think, much of the world — with a complete and total autopsy of the corpse of neoliberal policy of 28 years in India.” He discussed the tragedy of the long journeys by foot and the failure of government. He described how these journeys are even more difficult during the pandemic:

[E]arlier, when migrants walked — they did walk long distances, even earlier, to go home — they would have tea stalls, little bus stands and stuff along the way, where they would stop, work for the evening, earn their way to the next 40, 50 kilometers, earn their way to the next 60 kilometers, to the next bus stand, where they would work in a tea stall. All those tea stalls and restaurants on the highway are now closed under the lockdown. So you’re going to have a lot of deaths from non-COVID ailments, old Indian friends like diarrhea, dehydration, hunger, exhaustion. These sort of things are happening.

Highway 1 runs north from Delhi to northern Punjab. Sonipat, Haryana, sits directly on it around 30 miles north of Delhi. Until the buses and trains started again a few days ago, people were walking on Highway 1 through Sonipat on their way to and from Delhi, as well as a part of longer journeys north/ south and east/ west.

Jindal Global Law School is located in the midst of farmland and several villages, a few miles from the highway. One of my students from JGLS’ first class in 2009, Kunal Chaudhury, is now a lawyer with the Sonipat District Court and lives in Sonipat. In the midst of witnessing hundreds of walking migrants on the highway in front of his home, he took it upon himself to distribute water and food and medical supplies. After recording a video of a request for help, other joined him and they received various support from classmates and others. We had the following discussion about his experience:

1. How did you start helping migrants on Highway 1?

I was going for a meeting and I was surprised to see the number of people many of them were walking without slippers and shoes also. Although my house is just 500 to 600 meters from the main highway, I was not aware about the situation on the ground. I was just about to reach back home, but I just felt that something was not right, so I went back and handed over the cash in my pocket which I had to two families or groups.

After coming back home, I told my family about the situation and that I wanted to help these people.

My family said to go for it and that they would help me in all the ways possible. Then I called two friends of mine and I asked for their help to help in distribution. One of them agreed and he got a cartoon of biscuits and I got all the water bottles from my home and filled them with water (around 20 bottles) and ORS [oral rehydration salt] packets for preventing the migrants from dehydration. We carried these things in my car and we started distributing them to people walking on the highway. But our supplies finished in just an hour and we were shocked to see several hundreds of poor labourers were walking without food and water.

After that, my friend left for home and I went to ATM withdraw cash and again bought several things according to the needs of the migrants.

2. How many migrants do you see?

They were hundreds in numbers or maybe a thousand in just a stretch of 15 to 20 kms.

I realised that I wouldn’t be able to help so many people alone and people will be left if I try doing it alone. At first I hesitated but finally I put out a video appeal requesting people to help the migrants on the roads and I asked people who saw the appeal to not to let these people die on roads walking.

3. Where they are coming from and where they are going?

The migrants I have met came from various districts of Punjab like Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, also from Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir.

photos provided by Kunal Chaudhury

4. What do they tell you?

They told me that they were walking from past several days, sleeping on roads. I met a woman who was walking with a one month old baby and who had injuries on her feet. She was walking from Jalandhar in Punjab.

5. What do they need?

They needed water, like everyone asked for water then I started giving ORS packets, they never asked for bandages but after seeing their legs I realised that they needed the medical first aid.

Also the migrants told me that they did not have work from past two months and they told they had food to eat as the government and other people were providing food, but they were being displaced from places they had rented as they were not able to pay the rents to the landlords.

Further, most of them believed the rumours that everyone will be killed by the virus. This was told to me by several people.

photo by Kunal Chaudhury

6. Can you say a little about how you feel and what you have been thinking? Also could you also please say a little about the hot food provision that you took a video of? Who arranged that?

After seeing my video asking for help my batchmate Manika Mishra called me and then took care of the online posting of videos and updates.

I feel that this could have all been avoided if they were given a chance to go back home by the governments.

A friend of mine owns a restaurant at Biswamil on the national highway and he started a fresh hot food service along with volunteers. He provided the place and the chefs and other staff and one Gurudwara provided the rice and lentils. We both started working on the same day but I came to know about their work later.

I started visiting another place where a priest was providing free food and I was able to give a few urgent things like buiscuits , water, juice, ORS, bandages, and Boroline [medicated cream] and started to tell the migrants where they can eat.

Right now, we are providing help to several hundred people each day and hot food is served at two places 15 kms apart. Right now there are only a few people who are walking because the buses are running. But not everyone can travel right away, and large numbers of people are stuck, and so community kitchens continue to serve cooked food several times during the day. During the night, the people who don’t have a place to sleep sometimes sleep under the large tents where they were provided food during the day.  

I have given numerous items that were donated and some funds coming from my savings at three places in this stretch of highway. Daily we are giving around 55 kilograms of cucumber, which I buy from a farmer directly and then distribute at all the three places. I also keep some in my car for other people we see.

Further, as of today we are providing hot food to people travelling in buses, as well as ORS solution, bandages, biscuits, water bottles and packed hot food for their journeys.

Regarding the small children I spoke to a few doctors regarding what will be best for their diets and health. The doctor advised me to give salted buttermilk to the mothers so that they don’t feel dizzy and also provide them with fruits so that the children don’t get sick. So on the advice of the doctors I started to give this.

Please let me know if I can help out in any other way and I am really sorry for replying late as I was stuck there on the highways from early morning until late. I really do appreciate the help you have given and when I told them that you had sent the items many of them had tears in their eyes that you helped out from so far and the governments and civil society failed to help them. I personally feel that the civil society should have come out but they feared for their own personal lives. I on the other hand strongly believe that if one volunteer also dies unfortunately but still he will be able to save thousands, which is comparatively good in a way as so many families can be stopped from being destroyed.

Thank you Kunal and everyone who has been working with you.

Priya Gupta with Kunal Chaudhury | Sonipat | May 27, 2020

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