By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
On 24 March, Indian authorities implemented an abrupt nationwide lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak. Among other things, the lockdown interrupted all transport and production activities in the country.
For approximately forty million people in India, mostly day labourers, this precautionary measure means that they are left without work, money or food. Many of them are even stranded in their places of work as they could not go back home before the lockdown.
The government ran some special trains and buses to take migrants back to their homes, but that move helped only an estimated 20,000 people. The Indian Railways announced on Sunday that it will gradually restart passenger trains from Tuesday. But with a series of guidelines, such as online ticket booking only and downloading the Covid-19 tracking mobile application, many of these poor stranded migrants will not be able to make it.
In view of this, Father David Solomon SJ of the Bagaicha Social Centre in Ranchi, Jharkhand state, has launched an initiative in collaboration with other charity organizations, to help migrant workers. In an interview with Vatican News, the Jesuit priest explains the idea behind the initiative
Situation of migrant workers
Fr. Solomon pointed out that in the past twenty years, there has been a high rate of migration of tribal people towards western and southern India. “Almost 400 million people have migrated towards well-developed cities,” he added. “There, they become carpenters, construction labourers, painters, and work in small factories” where they are poorly paid.
The migration situation has been exacerbated during the Covid-19 lockdown. He notes that the government implemented lockdown measures without giving proper notice to the citizens. Many of the migrant workers, still in their workplaces, attempted to find means of returning to their families. Some of them were not paid for the work that they had done, in spite of repeated calls by the government to owners of mid-scale industries.
Concern of the Jesuits
Seeing the situation of the migrant workers trying to find their way home, Fr. Solomon said, “we wanted to create a database, we also wanted them to receive food and lodging.” He began to contact charitable organizations, both religious and secular, to ask for their collaboration. He also put out contact phone numbers on social media to facilitate communication.
In partnership with other organizations willing to help, Fr. Solomon reached out to local government helplines to urge them to encourage the host governments in the states where the migrants are stuck to provide food, lodging and security for them.
Fr. Solomon points out that Bagaicha Social Centre is a common apostolate of five Jesuit provinces in the central zone of India. Migration and displacement have been two major issues that concern the Jesuits in this region. For this reason, they are particularly troubled by the plight of migrant workers. Jesuit colleges in South-India have also mobilized resources to cater to the migrants in their vicinity.
“It is very important at this moment, that we keep in touch with people of good will,” Father Solomon said.
He gave the example of some migrant workers who had cycled for 1,800 kilometres and arrived in a state at night. It was only thanks to the network of collaboration between organizations that the travellers were able to be fed that night.
Call to solidarity
“If we stand in solidarity, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, then definitely, we will overcome,” said Fr. Solomon.
He called on the government to consider the situation of the migrant workers and to “hear the cry of the people. He noted that instead of the government, it is “Indians, ordinary people who have mobilized their own resources and reached out” to migrant workers.
“I think it is at this moment that we experience the strength and the stamina of the Holy Spirit guiding all the communities to bring them together to help out one another. That is a wonderful sign of God being active at this time in solidarity with the poor,” Fr. Solomon said.