2020: Year of the exodus

By Tushar Gandhi

June 1, 2020

Humanity will remember 2020 as the year of the pandemic. India will remember it additionally as the year of the great exodus, migration or, as it is said in Urdu, hijrat.

At the time of Independence, the subcontinent witnessed a tragic exchange of population due to Partition. While agreeing on it, none of the leaders except Mahatma Gandhi (Bapu) visualised the tragedy the political power brokering would cause. Bapu warned of this but the lust for power made his plea fall on deaf years. The subcontinent is still paying the price.

Then too the subcontinent witnessed huge caravans of humanity on foot, Hindus fleeing east and west Pakistan and Muslims fleeing the border areas and northern states, both fleeing for their lives, carrying what they could on their person or in the clothes they were wearing. It caused grave misery and tragedy for millions, families were torn apart, people were left destitute, millions were massacred. It was a manmade tragedy.

Just prior to Partition India had witnessed another equally devastating manmade tragedy, the Great Bengal Famine. This too extracted a huge human cost. Both will be remembered eternally.

Yet another disaster

2020 is witnessing a similar manmade tragedy. The pandemic has only acted as a catalyst; this was waiting to happen, the exodus of the poorest of the poor of our urban population, the unwanted, uncared for humans, tolerated merely because of our need and greed. The huge class of humanity classified as the urban poor, labour class, working class, immigrant workers, outsiders. Never considered a part of us, humans or equal citizens. To be exploited and discarded, like a condom. I know I am making a sweeping generalisation and there are exceptions, but the exceptions are so few and rare that their kindness does not amount to anything.

In the current situation, it is very easy to blame the government for the sorry plight of the large segment left destitute and desperate and it must be blamed for the lack of foresight and planning. The government, both state and central, failed miserably.

I have mentioned in my earlier articles why we have created such an unfair and unsustainable industrial scenario, so I will not go into that. Independent India and all its subsequent governments abandoned Bapu’s vision of a decentralised local, self-reliant economic and industrial model. It could be corrected but it will take very long before its benefits are apparent.

The crisis we are facing is critical and it’s too late to avert it. Millions of those Bapu called Daridranarayan, the soul of India, are walking, hungry and thirsty, fatigued, fleeing the heartless cities and metros with the realisation that they were never a part of these towns and cities and their fellow citizens did not even consider them human. They thought they too were part of one nation, but their fellow citizens considered them ‘outsiders’, a nuisance.

I am a Bombaywala and so I am going to talk about Bombay and how it has always been stepmotherly to these ‘outsiders’, and how we have never considered them as one of us.

City of dreams, and nightmares

Mumbai was built in no small part by its migrant labourers, who toiled to make it what it is today.

Bombay, India’s industrial, business and financial hub, was built by immigrants who settled and built this city, some through their fortunes, some through their acumen, some through their abilities and a large number by the sweat of their brow. They all gave equally and more as per their ability to make this a megacity. But, while becoming the city of dreams, Bombay lost its soul. It became heartless, an exploiter. We Bombaywalas love to boast about our ‘spirit’ but it is just a fable, reduced to distributing bottles of water and some food packets at times of crisis, but collectively we have lost our heart, our compassion, our character of caring.

Bombay came into eminence because of its huge and thriving textile industry, mills churning out miles and miles of textiles, creating huge fortunes. Bombay was also a hub of international trade, the financial capital of the nation. The mills were completely dependent on labour and they attracted the first wave of ‘immigrants’, labourers from the villages of mainly western Maharashtra but also a large number from neighbouring states. These were the first wave of outsiders. See how we treated them. They were the invisible populations that kept the textile mills running 24×7 in three shifts. They were mostly bachelors, so they found a unique but absolutely dehumanised way of living in the city, tenants by shifts, bunches of 20 to 24 men renting one room, a kholi, and living in it in shifts, living out of a trunk and on a bedding. Some were fortunate that their mill owners also built labour colonies and they could live in them but these were very few. It is from this dehumanising existence that the romanticised chawls arose. Stand in queues if you want to shit, await your turn for a bath, wait at the common tap to fill your ration of water. These chawls created their own sub-culture and sub-societies, but these too were the lucky few.

The textile mills acted like magnets for the poor from the hinterland but offered only a dehumanised existence.

As Bombay grew and required more bodies for work, its lure spread and the next wave of immigrants came from farther away, and as the flow increased it was seen as an influx. We wanted them and yet we thought of them as a burden. The migration into the city gave rise to the slums. We saw them as eyesores, pig sties, cancers. Dharavi was the hub of immigrant workers, labourers, vendors, domestic staff and all those whose physical work kept this metropolis functional, liveable, but it has always been considered an eyesore.

I remember once I was given the task of escorting NRI millionaires from Silicon Valley from a premier luxury hotel in South Mumbai (the city’s name change had happened) to the international airport at Sahar. It was peak hour and before the sealink was built. They had chauffeur-driven luxury limousines. I thought that to avoid the traffic snarls it would be quicker to take Tulsi Pipe road and cut across Dharavi, so I requested the chauffeur to take that route. I got a frosty look and a curt reply: “We don’t drive on those roads.” I was perplexed, but kept quiet. Now I realise that we have always treated what we dismiss as our seedy underbelly this disdainfully.

We want our labour within reach but we don’t want their slums in our neighbourhood. When I was  house-hunting, the new luxury apartments were being built and in many of them they had made rooms for servants. The ones I saw were shocking, little more than kennels. Living in our 1,800 sq ft apartments, we were providing less than 100 sq ft foot pigeonholes to our domestic help and that too only because then they would be available to serve us 24×7.

The taxi drivers were the other outsiders, aliens UP walas, bhaiyyas, outsiders, not one of us. Before Uber and Ola, the kaali peelis were the lifeblood of the Bombay commute but we never bothered about the drivers because they were outsiders, never mind that they spent a lifetime labouring in the metro. For many of them, their vehicles were their homes, their address the number plates and the stand where they parked their vehicles. It was much later that the municipality built public utilities at these taxi stands, inadequate but when these men were forced to defecate in public and bathe at fire hydrants, they were eyesores, vermin, outsiders. Think about how dehumanising such an existence can be.

From boom to bust

Today, Mumbai’s textile mills are in ruins or have been replaced by glitzy commercial and residential towers. The migrant labourers have been forgotten and discarded.

After the textile mills went bust, most of the labourers lost their livelihoods and many were cheated out of the wages they had earned. They were left destitute. Some returned to their villages, others added to the faceless urban poor, forced to become domestic servants – poorly paid, overworked, exploited and not provided for. Required 24×7 but without any support.

When slums mushroomed, we blamed ‘outsiders’, never acknowledging that they were there because we needed them and yet we in our greed would not acknowledge them. The city administration treated them as a nuisance. Slums were a cancer but look at how dehumanising the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is – it replaces horizontal slums with vertical ones. Try living in them and see what it’s like. But we don’t care as long as the government demolishes the slum in our neighbourhood and takes the outsiders elsewhere.

Bombay has witnessed pogroms against these migrants, political terror in the name of protecting the rights of the original populace. We have stood by and watched these people being lynched, beaten and terrorised. Sometimes it was lungis, sometimes bhaiyyas, sometimes Muslims.

The suburbs have seen an influx of auto rickshaws and drivers. We can’t live without them; they are convenient, affordable and quick. Most of the drivers are outsiders, invisible for us. Walk down Carter Road and you’ll see hundreds of rickshaws parked there post-midnight till early morning, and the drivers sleeping on the backseats. In the mornings, they defecate on the rocks, bathe in the sea, wash one uniform, wear the spare one and start working so that we can get to the station on time, so that our children can get to school on time. But on our morning walks, we are disgusted by these uncivilised outsiders and their dirty habits. We applaud the politician who threatens to send them all packing.

If the bai is late by an hour or indisposed, they are useless, they aren’t supposed to have families, their children are not supposed to fall ill, have exams or chill with their parents for a day. They are not supposed to have human notions. They are meant to serve.

In this crisis, too, how many of us have given our locked out servants full wages? How many industrialists are paying their workforce full wages? Where do those who are normally paid a meagre subsistence wage live?

We have never allowed this huge workforce to feel that they are a part of us, citizens with equal rights, humans like us.

Blame it on us

The exodus caused by the lockdown is a declaration of no-confidence against our urban populace. A condemnation of our inhuman ways. We never allowed them to feel one of us. We have been exploiters devoid of compassion.

Yes, the government failed but we are to blame much more – our selfishness, our exploitation has caused the human tragedy on the roads and highways. We must atone for our sins because if they turn on us and seek revenge, we will be wiped out. So, even in this situation, we are behaving selfishly, buying insurance by distributing food and water bottles. We must admit that we are the reason they have been forced to flee. Every death is due to us, every blister is caused by our selfishness, every suffering because of our lack of compassion.

I am a film buff and since this tragedy began unfolding, a prophetic song has been haunting me. It is so appropriate in describing the plight of the migrants and their situation and of our callous treatment of them. It was penned by the great Sahir Ludhianvi for the film Fantoosh:

दुखी मन मेरे सुन मेरा केहना
जहाँ नहीं चैना वहाँ नहीं रैना
दुखी मन मेरे…..

दर्द हमारा कोई न जाने
अपनी गरज के सब हैं दीवाने
किसके आगे रोना रोएं
देस पराया लोग बेगाने
दुखी मन मेरे…..

लाख यहाँ झोली फैला ले
कुछ नहीं देंगे इस जग वाले
पत्थर के दिल मोम न होंगे
चाहे जितना नीर बहाले
दुखी मन मेरे…..

अपने लिये कब हैं ये मेले
हम हैं हर मेले में अकेले
क्या पाएगा उसमें रेहकर
जो दुनिया जीवन से खेले
दुखी मन मेरे…

We must atone and post-coronavirus work to create a more equal and compassionate city. If the spirit of Bombay truly exists, we need to make it apparent. This exodus is not just because the government failed; it’s because we all did.


Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation

 Pictures courtesy: Wikimedia Commons