Barely six years after joining the IAS, Aruna Royquit the elite civil service in 1974 and opted to work at the grassroots level in remote villages of Rajasthan for the uplift and empowerment of poor, vulnerable and voiceless people.

She realised she could serve the people more by working as a social activist rather than as a bureaucrat. She and her team comprising Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh formed the Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which initially fought for fair wages of workers from a remote village Devdungri.

Subsequently, her team exposed organised corruption in government departments and started a three-decade-long battle for the Right to Information (RTI) which later proved to be a game-changer by ensuring transparency and accountability in the system’s functioning at the grassroots level.

A recipient of prestigious national and international awards like the Magsaysay Award and the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration, Academia and Management, Aruna has always been at the forefront of campaigns for helping the poor and the marginalised, playing a significant role in the making of landmark legislations such as the RTI Act, the Right to Work (NREGA), and the Right to Food Security Act.

In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, she reflected on the unfolding epic tragedy of migrant labourers’ mass exodus from various states amid the continuing lockdown.

Excerpts:

Q. What is your assessment of the coronavirus lockdown being enforced across the country since 25 March?

A. China told the world about the SARS-CoV-2 virus on 31 December last year. India has its first COVID-19 case on 30 January. The lockdown was enforced more than 50 days later on 25 March. The Union government had a lot of time to prepare much better for this than it did.

The lockdown was announced in haste without adequate time and notice given to people and the effects are plainly visible for all to see. It seems to have inflicted far more pain and suffering on the population than the virus and disease (Covid-19) have.

One only has to contrast the actions of the central government with the way that Kerala, which incidentally had the first case in India, managed the situation to see how planning and foresight could have easily made the lockdown far less tragic than it has, very unfortunately, been. A lack of sensitivity to the plight of the vulnerable people in India has been patently visible.

Q. The lockdown has triggered an unprecedented mass exodus of migrant labourers and the destitute and their families across the country. Many of them lost their lives in the course of their perilous journeys. How could this epic human tragedy have been prevented?

A. While one certainly has the benefit of hindsight now, the most obvious thing to have done to prevent this tragedy would have been to prepare better and given Indians more notice before announcing the lockdown.

The Prime Minister’s announcement at 8 pm on 24 March had nothing to say about offering basic amenities and services to the nation’s marginalised. The absence of assurances from the Prime Minister and the way that we have seen a substantial outsourcing of relief measures in cities to civil society conveys the apathy of the government towards migrant labourers.

This has to be contrasted with the reported shrinking of funds to NGOs, as companies are under directive to divert CSR money to Government of India. Government has failed to ensure that each person was fed and given an allowance to tide over the crisis.

Q. What is your take on the roles of the Centre and state governments in handling this colossal crisis, especially with regard to its devastating impacts on the poor and vulnerable people?

A. Different state governments have handled the crisis differently. Some, like Kerala, have done very well. Bihar offered Rs. 1,000 to workers who had migrated from the state. This was a very good measure and other states could have also taken (similar measures).

The lack of financial support from the Centre to the state governments, like the delays in the GST payments to states put paid to the claims by the Union government of cooperative federalism. Some common characteristics that one has seen across many states with regard to migrant workers has been the way most treated them as step children when it came to offering them aid.

Now, however, they are reluctant to let them go since these workers are the real drivers of the economy. That some states to which these workers want to return have been reluctant to take them back for fear of spread of the virus has also been very sad to see.

While all states seem to want workers to revive their economies, at that time they are viewed as people who will spread the disease. In a sense, migrant labour are only seen as beasts of burden for the sake of the economy who are otherwise abandoned by both their home states and host states.

Q. And what do you think of the judiciary’s role in this entire episode?

A. Barring some high courts, the higher judiciary has largely been missing in action and has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to uphold the rights of citizens.

A real test of a democracy is its adherence to constitutional values, when the going is hard and in times of crisis. By not addressing critical issues hands on, despite wide media coverage of the tragedy unfolding across the country, (the judiciary’s role) is to be mourned.

Q. The Union government recently announced a seemingly massive economic package involving a slew of welfare measures for migrants, street vendors and small farmers. Do you think it is sufficient?

A. The economic package is certainly not sufficient. Certain measures like expanding rations or increased financial allocations for MGNREGA are welcome.

But this is far from enough. The government is offering loans to street vendors and small farmers when they need immediate cash transfers as relief. Even corporates have criticised measures like the dilution of labour laws and protection. Having gone through all the measures of the economic package, if one were to ask how much of this will provide immediate relief to the migrant workers trying to reach their homes, there is very little indeed.

The government has to do a lot more, especially for the poor and those who are affected most acutely by economic distress. Big announcements without much substance will do very little to alleviate the suffering that people are facing.