While presenting the Union Budget 2020 in Parliament on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman outlined the importance of data and said that in order to meet challenges of real-time monitoring of India's increasingly complex economy, "data must have strong credibility". She said the significance of data today is such that the phrase "data is the new oil" has become a cliché.
In order to address this need for "credible data", Sitharaman proposed a policy aimed at boosting decision-making based on credible data-driven analysis. "It will enable our firms to skilfully incorporate data in every step of their value chains," the finance minister had said.
However, just seven months after outlining the significance of "credible data", the Narendra Modi government on September 14 informed Parliament that it has not maintained any data on the number of migrant workers who died while trying to reach their homes after the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus was announced.
To know details of the migrant crisis, Lok Sabha MPs K Navaskani, Suresh Narayan Dhanorkar and Adoor Prakash asked the Modi government if it is aware that a number of migrant workers lost their lives during their return to their hometowns. Besides this, the MPs sought to know if the government had provided any compensation/economic assistance to the victims' family.
To this, the Union Ministry for Labour and Employment in a written reply said, "No such data is maintained", and that the answer to the question on compensation "does not arise" since there is no data.
When asked if it has done any assessment of job losses among migrant workers due to the Covid-19 crisis, the government again replied, "No such data is maintained".
THE ONES WHO DIED: A LIST
While the government says it has not maintained any data of those who died on their way home, IndiaToday.in had prepared a database to document such deaths by tracking media reports during the migrant crisis.
As on May 28, we had documented details of 238 migrant workers who died while trying to reach their homes. Among these, 173 were those whose identity information could be collected. In our database, we recorded information such as name, sex, age, place of death, source location, occupation, destination, mode of travel, reason for death, and distance covered.
Analysis of this data shows that the reasons for migrant workers' deaths during their homeward journeys include: getting burnt to death in forest fires, being hit or crushed by truck/bus/trains, exhaustion, heart attack, blood in vomiting, chest pain, asphyxiation after falling in a deep pit, being trapped in snow, stomach pain, breathlessness, hunger, exhaustion, dehydration, fatigue, multi-organ failure, and snake bite, among others.
Among states, Uttar Pradesh saw the highest number of deaths (at least 99), followed by Madhya Pradesh (at least 34), Maharashtra (at least 31) and Bihar (at least 23).
Since this data was collected from media reports, it is not exhaustive and it is possible that many deaths were not reported by the media or that we could not track all reports. Due to limitations of resources and the fact that many reports were in regional language media outlets, we do not claim to have documented all migrant workers' deaths.
However, despite these shortcomings, this repository provides a broad overview of the migrant crisis that followed the Modi government's lockdown announcement and lists names of those who died while attempting to reach home.
A similar database (based on tracking media reports) was also prepared by independent researchers Thejesh GN, Kanika Sharma, Krushna and Aman. According to this database (last updated on July 4), there were at least 971 non-coronavirus related deaths that the researchers said were directly or indirectly attributable to the lockdown. This includes deaths of migrant workers and that of others.
Besides documenting deaths of migrants during their homeward journeys, this database also documented deaths due to reasons such as suicides (among migrants and others), alcohol withdrawal, police brutality, lack of medical care to patients, and deaths in quarantine centres, among others.
In June, SaveLIFE Foundation, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation working on road safety, prepared a report saying at least 198 migrant workers were killed in road accidents between March 25 and May 31.
The report said more than 1,400 road accidents killed 750 people in India during this period and of them, 198 were migrant workers.
Apart from these, in June, there were several media reports, attributed to Railway officials, that revealed that at least 80 migrant workers had died in the Shramik Special trains during their homeward journeys.
On March 24, at 8pm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a televised address announcing a complete nationwide lockdown from midnight. The announcement gave people just four hours to prepare themselves for what later turned out to be the world's largest and strictest lockdown.
While the lockdown was aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus, it also triggered a humanitarian crisis of an unprecedented scale. Through the next few weeks, and later months, thousands of migrant workers who were rendered jobless overnight due to the lockdown and had no means to survive in cities in absence of wages, started journeying towards their villages.
Thus, in March, April and May, India witnessed its worst migrant crisis in several decades as tens and thousands of migrant workers were forced to travel hundreds of kilometres, often on foot and empty stomachs under a scorching sun, in a desperate attempt to escape the cities.
Many walked (some barefoot) for hundreds of kilometres (at times more than 1,000 kms), some cycled while others hitchhiked. Men, women, children, toddlers, and the elderly, the groups consisted of them all.
SCALE OF THE CRISIS: A SNAPSHOT
The Modi government's reply in Parliament comes despite the unprecedented scale of the migrant crisis and the arduous journeys the workers undertook. Tens of them died on roads due to of hunger, exhaustion and dehydration, while many more were crushed under trucks, buses and trains.
Much of this was reported day-in-and-day-out for weeks in the regional, national and the international press. News channels telecasted live visuals of helpless migrant workers walking home, while front pages of newspapers published their gripping images.
The public and political outcry of this unfolding tragedy forced the government to run special trains and buses to ferry people home. The first train started in early May, but by then many had already died in their failed attempts to reach home.
The most horrific such tragedy took place on May 16 in Auraiya, Uttar Pradesh where 27 migrant workers were killed and 33 injured when a trailer truck carrying sacks of lime and 43 people rammed into a stationary truck with a number of migrant workers sitting inside it near a roadside eatery.
On May 8, a goods train in Maharashtra's Aurangabad crushed and ran over 16 migrant workers who were walking towards their home in Madhya Pradesh. The workers had reportedly fallen asleep on the tracks due to exhaustion.
On April 21, 12-year-old Jamlo Makdam died of exhaustion and dehydration after walking for nearly 110 kms from Telangana to her village in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district. She had reportedly gone to Telangana to work in the chilli fields. With transportation suspended due to the lockdown, she and other migrant workers from her village started walking home.
Another gripping image of the migrant crisis surfaced on May 27 from Bihar's Muzaffarpur where a toddler was seen trying to wake his dead mother lying unattended on a railway platform. In the video, the toddler was trying to awaken his mother by waving the sheet that covered her body, unaware that she was already dead. The woman was travelling in a Shramik Special train from Ahmedabad and was headed to Katihar.
CASE OF THE MISSING DATA
In February, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman rightly stressed upon the significance of data in tracking India's "increasingly complex economy". A mention of this in her Budget speech, arguably the most important financial document for any government, underlines its significance.
However, the fact that more than five months after the migrant crisis started unfolding, the government still says it has not maintained any data on the deaths of migrant workers and the job loss suffered by them, indicates a wide gulf between the intensions outlined in the Budget speech and the government's daily practice.
The migrant workers' crisis may no longer hog headlines today, but the fact that the government never systematically documented their deaths despite the unprecedented scale of the crisis, defeats the purpose outlined in the Budget speech.
It also deprived the country of an official record of the helpless people who died on their way to home and job loss of others during a crisis that many experts have called the worst of all times.