Fr Justine kaiprampadan
“Walking is falling forward. Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster broken. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith” Paul Salopek.
People have always walked from one place to another for good and bad reasons. The wise men coming from the east to see the King of Kings as a baby in his manger and Cain, forced to move after killing his brother, Abel. Throughout the Bible we read stories of people on the move. Abraham started a long journey out of Ur; Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt; the disciples scattered around the Roman Empire; Paul took off on various missionary journeys; and the Bible ends with a book Revelation by St John while he was living in exile. The story of God’s people is definitely one of movement. And perhaps the most famous refugee of them all was Jesus. In what is frequently a forgotten side note in his story, Jesus and His family were forced to flee to Egypt to avoid the infant massacres of King Herod.
All over India, millions of migrant workers are fleeing its shuttered cities and trekking home to their villages. These informal workers are the backbone of the big city economy, constructing houses, cooking food, serving in eateries, delivering takeaways, cutting hair in salons, making automobiles, plumbing toilets and delivering newspapers, among other things. Escaping poverty in their villages, most of the estimated 100 million of them live in squalid housing in congested urban ghettos and aspire for upward mobility.
Lockdown turned them into refugees overnight. Their workplaces were shut, and most employees and contractors who paid them vanished. Sprawled together, men, women and children began their journeys at all hours of the day. When the children were too tired to walk, their parents carried them on their shoulders.
They walked under the sun and they walked under the stars. The staggering exodus was reminiscent of the flight of refugees during the bloody partition in 1947. Millions of bedraggled refugees had then trekked to east and West Pakistan, in a migration that displaced 15 million people.
Clearly, a lockdown to stave off a pandemic is turning into a humanitarian crisis. The next few days will determine whether the states are able to transport the workers home or keep them in the cities and provide them with food and money.
Migrant workers continue to walk and cycle back to their homes. Some do not have documents needed to register for the trains.
About 3,000 migrants assembled near the Mangalore railway station and demanded that they be sent back to their states. Similar protests were also reported from Kerala and Gujarat.
Very sad news we heard during the migrant walks. The bodies of sixteen migrant labourers who were mown down by a goods train in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district. They had started their journey on foot from Maharashtra hoping to reach Madhya Pradesh, but it was their bodies that reached their home. The labourers, working in a steel factory left for their home state on foot. Exhausted, they slept on the tracks, not knowing that traffic of goods trains had not ceased despite lockdown. They were walking along the rail tracks apparently to escape police attention.
Lack of knowledge, the workers even do not know the distance and the hardship of walking. They walked along the rail track to not stray away from the path. Who is responsible? The government, the migrants’ contractors or the system which do not care for others. Of course, God is with them walking and walking through the history. Am I walking with them? One of the best ways to express love is to see to it that justice is imbedded in the laws of society in order to protect and liberate the oppressed, especially women and children. Nevertheless, when we look at what is happening around us, we realize that justice is lacking. There is ample evidence that the poor are still walking through the rail. We are responsible, because they are our neighbours and we are bound to love them. This is, after all, what the Apostle James called “true religion” (James 1:27).