A political blame game broke out on Tuesday between the Maharashtra ruling parties and the BJP-led central government after more than a thousand migrant workers gathered in Mumbai demanding transport arrangements to go back to their native places. The massive gathering came hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an extension of the coronavirus-enforced lockdown till May 3.
In viral videos, the police were seen using canes to disperse the migrants who had gathered near the Bandra railway station in suburban Mumbai. Later, an FIR was registered against at least a thousand of these workers for causing a public health scare and assembling at one place in defiance of the lockdown. A person identified as Vinay Dubey was taken into custody by the Navi Mumbai Police for mobilising the crowd and spreading rumours.
In a similar protest, hundreds of migrant workers took to the streets of Mumbra in Thane district, demanding they be sent to their hometowns. The workers, mostly from Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and living in rented accommodations, claimed that houseowners were demanding rent from them and that they were unable to procure essentials.
Daily-wage workers have been rendered jobless since the lockdown was announced late last month. Although authorities and NGOs have made arrangements for food, most of them want to go back to their native places to escape the hardship brought by the sweeping curbs.
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said workers who had gathered outside the railway station might have expected Modi to order the reopening of state borders. He said the migrants were assured that the state government would make arrangement of food and accommodation for them, following which the crowds dispersed.
Deshmukh later ordered a probe to find out who spread the rumour that trains will be run to take migrant workers back to their states. "Those found guilty of sparking such rumours will be dealt severely invoking the fullest force of law," he said in a tweet.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who spoke to Union Home Minister Amit Shah on the issue, also reassured the workers and said that the lockdown is not a "lock-up", appealing to them to face the "challenge" of the pandemic by staying back.
During his conversation with Thackeray, Shah expressed concern over the gathering, stressing that such events weaken the country’s fight against coronavirus and the administration needs to stay vigilant to avoid such incidents.
Thackeray said his government will not allow anybody to play with the sentiments of poor migrant workers and disturb the law and order situation in the state. "I will not let the situation go out of control," he said, adding that the culprits will be punished.
Aaditya criticises central government
In a series of tweets after the gathering came to light, Maharashtra Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray blamed the Centre for the protest and sought a roadmap to facilitate the migrant workers’ journey back to their native places.
Thackeray said the situation in Bandra, or even the rioting in Surat earlier, “is a result of the Union government not being able to take a call on arranging a way back home for migrant labour".
"They don't want food or shelter, they want to go back home," he said. "Many are refusing to eat or stay in these camps."
Thackeray said more than six lakh people are currently housed in various shelter camps across the state.
Striking a conciliatory tone later, Thackeray thanked the Centre for taking immediate cognizance of the issue and for actively assisting the state. “We understand the catch-22 situation the Centre and states face,” he said. “I am thankful to the PM and the Home Minister for understanding the situation while trying to ensure the safety of the home states of migrants.”
BJP leaders slam state government
Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis blamed the Shiv Sena-led state government, terming the protest as a "very serious" incident. He said it was the responsibility of the state government to arrange for proper food for the workers, but that had not happened.
The Leader of Opposition said the state government should learn a lesson from this incident and take care that such incidents do not recur.
"But it is unfortunate that the Centre is being blamed in such a situation to escape (from the responsibility). The fight against corona (virus) is not political, please note this at least now. It is my earnest request that we fight this battle seriously," he said.
Another BJP leader Kirit Somaiya targetted the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, describing the incident as an intelligence failure and questioning how so many people had gathered outside the station and what the intelligence wing was doing.
However, NCP leader Nawab Malik said the chief minister had been demanding that the Centre make arrangements for the migrant workers to return to their native states, but the NDA government did not allow it.
"Migrant workers were demanding to go to their villages and hence the crowd. It is said somebody circulated a message that a train is to leave (for the home states of the migrant workers)...if anyone has indeed circulated such a message, it will be probed into," Malik said.
Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma appealed to Modi and the chief ministers of states to improve the condition of migrant labourers and daily wage-workers.
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"Heart-rending to see the plight of migrant labour and workers -- starving children, hungry men and women, desperately waiting for food and relief. This inhumane treatment of our poor countrymen is a shame and blot on Indian democracy," he said on Twitter. "Appealing to the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers and the administration, give them back their dignity and rights. Give them roti (food), not lathi (violence). This repression is an unforgivable crime against humanity."
(With inputs from PTI)