By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, April 14 (IANS) As an aghast nation watched more than 3,000 hungry and angry migrant clamouring to go home at Bandra today, a slanging match erupted between the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday.
The migrants, including many women and children, from various states, gathered near Bandra in the hope of getting a meal and then catching a train back to their states, hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended the national lockdown till May 3 – three days more than Maharashtra’s shutdown till April 30.
Not willing to move, the stunned migrants staged a dharna demanding transportation back home and others started running around, compelling the police to mildly cane them, and after around two hours, Mumbai Police Spokesperson and DCP Pranay Ashok said they had been dispersed and the situation was under control.
The police was taken completely unawares by the hordes, which came in small trickles from different directions, pointing to a potential intelligence failure, flouting prohibitory orders and throwing to the winds “social distancing” norms, barely 2 km from the residence of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray in Bandra east.
Senior police personnel and political leaders like local Congress MLA Zeeshan Siddique appealed to them to maintain calm and promised to arrange food-and-shelter for them and raise their issue with the government.
Slamming the Modi government at the Centre, Tourism Minister and Sena leader Aditya Thackeray said that “the current situation in Bandra, or even the rioting in Surat, is a result of the Union government not being able to take a call on arranging a way home for the migrant labour. They don’t want food or shelter, they want to go back home”.
Later, he appeared to soften up by saying that the migrant issue persists everywhere, the state houses more than 600,000 migrants, provides them with meals, and will continue to ensure all comforts at the migrant camps set up in Maharashtra.
He also thanked the Centre for understanding the situation while trying to ensure the safety of the home states of migrants.
Nationalist Congress Party’s Home Minister Anil Deshmukh breathed fire and blamed Modi for letting down the desperate migrants who were expecting that the PM would make some announcement to facilitate their return home.
“The migrant labourers are in large numbers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and other states. Today they were hoping that the PM would make some announcement which would give them an opportunity to return to their native places,” Deshmukh said, adding that nothing of the sort happened, and the PM let them down badly.
Congress’ Mumbai Guardian Minister Aslam Shaikh said that CM Thackeray had raised with Modi the issue of sending the migrants back home, but the Centre extended the lockdown without addressing the migrants’ concerns.
In a sharp reaction, former Mumbai Congress President Sanjay Nirupam said: “This was bound to happen. People have no food to eat, they are prevented from returning to their native villages. For how long can they remain like this? The government’s figures are merely on paper. For how long and to how many people can any government keep feeding freely, is there no alternative?”
Attacking the Centre, Congress state spokesperson Sachin Sawant said that if the PM had given time to the migrants to return home, they would not have come to the streets like in Mumbai, Delhi, Surat and other places.
“The state government can provide them food, but cannot send them to their homes in view of the lockdown,” Sawant pointed out.
Trade Unions Joint Action Committee Maharashtra Convenor Vishwas Utagi said there are over two million migrants stuck in Mumbai since the March 25 lockdown, besides 3,000 fishermen stranded at Gholvad in south Gujarat.
“They have no food, no work, no homes, no transport to go home. How can they survive? The government machinery is not responding to the challenge and this is a human tragedy in other parts of the country also,” Utagi said.
Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi said CM Thackeray addressed the migrants directly, calmed them and assured the state’s full support, and “warned those trying to spread rumours and fake news, and the state government would not spare the guilty”.
However, Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party MP Poonam Mahajan demanded that the state government should make separate planning for the migrants here which it was not doing, resulting in this chaos today.
The BJP state Vice-President Kirit Somaiya demanded to know how such a huge crowd could gather, flouting Sec. 144 (the prohibitory orders).
“It’s a matter of deep concern. What about intelligence, and why today? The state government must treat this incident seriously and modify its schemes to provide food to the migrants,” Somaiya said.
Countering this, Congress’ Sawant accused Somaiya of raking up a aconspiracy’ angle without the BJP understanding the plight of the migrants – “Should we say the same (conspiracy) for Surat and Delhi incidents?”
Targeting the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi government, BJP leader Nitesh Rane said tomorrow, it could be a (migrant) crowd from the Konkan.
“It’s the anger of the people — 10 people live in a 10×10 hutment in Mumbai — they should be given proper food or allowed to return home,” Rane demanded.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: [email protected])