By Nita Shashidharan
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore inequality and appalling state of affairs in India. The buzz word is a “new normal”, a situation where “we have to learn to live with the virus” as proclaimed by the joint secretary of the Union Health Ministry, and a term that has now become assimilated into common lingo. As the government facilitated the movement of people across the country, the plight of those stranded in states and countries other than their homes has been of concern. As we saw COVID-19 unfold, we also saw how the state decided who gets to go back home and who does not. Here I narrate the state of affairs when the stranded were just beginning to be permitted to return.
As a student stranded in Tamil Nadu during COVID-19, I think it important to share and revisit some concerns and uncertainty of that time. When the virus hit us in India, followed by the sudden announcement restricting all movement and the shutdown of the nation, little did many of us know that the country and even the world would not be the same in 2020. Was enough thought given to “Mission Lockdown”? Can the impacts of this mission on all its subjects be weighed equally? My opinion would be as good as that of any of you informed citizens of India.
Those stranded included migrant workers, patients, students, tourists, and others who travelled for personal or professional reasons. Most longed to go back to what they considered as safer spaces – whether or not they were — their native homes. A backlash to the ill-planned lockdown was inevitable and a matter of time. When the government finally realized that it needed to address the growing anger, they began supporting the return of the stranded. In a couple of weeks, numerous state-wise portals and procedures were implemented to assist people in travelling to their place of choice.
To give you a better understanding, I provide a glimpse into two such portals: Tamil Nadu’s e-pass and Karnataka’s Seva Sindhu as they were in May 2020. Both these portals sought basic information of the travellers and asked for identity proofs; in this, they did a decent job. There was limited space for people to justify their need to travel if they did not find the options representative. Tamil Nadu’s e-pass website did have a remarks column which could be used for this, but Karnataka’s Seva Sindhu portal did not. The desire to justify was driven by the fear of rejection, that one’s case would not be properly represented, and rightly so, considering that getting a pass approved took some time.
Options to travel at that point of time included choosing between making one’s own arrangements and requesting for government assistance. Fortunately, I was able to find a driver who also wanted to return to Bengaluru. It is a privilege to have a vehicle, whether your own or for hire, to travel to your destination. For those who were stranded and trying to hire a vehicle, it was unclear whether the driver would be allowed to return after dropping the passenger. Would another application be needed? There were many questions but few answers.
Once I obtained the e-pass to travel, there were several mandatory halts and checks throughout the journey. I must admit that while in my case there seemed to be strict vigilance, I know of many people who were subject to lesser scrutiny. The monitoring was as strict or lenient an exercise as the staff on the ground chose to make it. However, with long queues and the lack of social distancing, the purpose of controlling the spread of the disease was not met.
For those inter-state travellers who obtained the e-pass from their host state, one would have assumed that this meant that the pass would apply for the destination state as well. However, this remained unclear and was a cause of worry for many travellers. Below was the word of caution provided on the approved inter-state e-pass from Tamil Nadu.
How were individuals who were stranded without good network and internet connectivity supposed to work around this? I waited for about two hours at the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border because the ground officials did not have a clear idea about whether they should allow me into Karnataka despite having the e-pass and all the necessary documents. This lack of clarity even after getting the required e-pass was a cause for concern. During this process, those stranded were repeatedly asked where their homes were or whether they had the right to go where they wanted to.
Earlier, while I was in a village in Tamil Nadu, a local resident asked me, “This place is my home, but I work in another city. I just came back temporarily during the lockdown. I have no savings. I want to head back to work. I have a vehicle. Can I apply to go back to the city?” While the migration of people continues, many who were able to travel home would now like to return to their places of work. With cases as varied as chalk and cheese, often the response that may have been valid for one may not necessarily have been useful for another. This is the complexity that governs management at the time of such a crisis.
The magnitude and scale of this pandemic showed that India and other countries around the world were not prepared. If we are to move towards a “new normal” it would be in the best interest of a country like India to treat every individual with dignity and proceed on a case to case basis, without banking on authoritarian governance alone. We need to move towards a more efficient and adaptive means of movement and crisis management. We hope to see this in practice in the coming months.
P.S. I was lucky to return to Bengaluru just in time. A couple of days after my return, all entrants were subjected to mandatory institutional quarantine. A week after my return, Karnataka announced that it would not permit entry of those stranded from high-risk states. Tamil Nadu was one of them. Sheer luck!
About the Author:
Nita Shashidharan is a PhD student at ATREE. She is currently studying the changing patterns in forest-agricultural land use/land cover and its relationship to provisioning ecosystem services under climatic variability and institutional dynamics in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu. She enjoys learning and has a keen interest in science communication, teaching, and often contemplates about the state of education and research in India.