The inside story of a lawyers' collective sending migrant workers home
An alumnus of National Law School of India University (NLSIU) tells Lounge how former students of the institute helped airlift nearly 370 migrant workers back home
In the weeks of the covid-19 lockdown, several individuals and organizations have stepped in where the government failed—to help lakhs of stranded migrant workers return to their hometown. One such group is the alumni of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), who organized themselves into an informal collective, ‘Mission Aahan Vaahan’. Over the past week, it has helped nearly 370 people from Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states, return home by chartering plane from a private airline.
Lounge spoke to Ashwin Shankar, alumnus of the 2000 batch of NLSIU, on how his collective successfully facilitated the return. In the coming weeks, said Shankar, they intend to send at least 10 more flights from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to different destinations across India. Edited excerpts:
What compelled you to undertake the evacuation?
Everyone’s been watching the [migrant crisis] in the news. There’s been a lot of frustration in how they’re treated. Around 23 May, someone in our NLSIU WhatsApp group had proposed to collect Rs2,000 and give it to migrants [in distress]. I’d said, Rs2,000 was too less, make it at least Rs10,000. I also said I didn’t mind collecting it.
We checked about the buses but it was working out to be expensive. We were told that at state borders, we have to pay bribes to people. We’d heard about 40 trains with migrant workers also not ending up at their destinations. With a flight, you could go back without any hindrance.
One of our classmates works at the Tata Group. He said, we could pay AirAsia or Vistara (owned by the Tatas). So we chartered the flight and it took off.
How did you go about it?
Fund collection was easy. People across alumni were coming forward and volunteering to fund. We paid AirAsia Rs11.4 laks for a flight with 176 people. They were cooperative too. But whether the flight would be allowed to leave was uncertain. We were told that it would go only 12 hours before the departure.
What were the challenges you faced?
First, we had to identify people who needed to go, find the ones who couldn’t afford to return at all and prioritize them. We had partnered with a local NGO that had such a database. We had around 10-15 members of our alumni checking up with each person and family of migrants, telling them how to pack, to carry the documents etc. After that, it all went off smoothly.
What do you think of the government’s efforts to send migrants back?
It’s been a mega failure. In times like these, the test of the country is how it takes care of its poor. The general assumption is, if you have a nationwide lockdown, poor can survive for maximum of one week. We failed them.
What did you learn about the system after doing it?
One, it’s not easy to do this. You need to have contacts within the government to pull it off. One of the alumni members is a lobbyist and has a network of friends in high places. With his assistance, influence and pressure, this was possible.
There was always a chance that the workers would be left at the airport in Jharkhand. But the government had sent buses at the airport to pick them up and take them to depot, so they could return home after.
The second flight with migrants left from Mumbai airport this morning, sponsored by Godrej group. How did it go?
It was perfect. It was a house-full flight, which was a relief for us. Earlier, many workers had been conned on pretext of return, so there was a chance some would change their minds before landing at the airport. But it didn’t happen.
Are there going to be more such evacuations?
We’re planning a total 10 flights, this time from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to destinations across India. How and when has to be still be worked out. But that should be easy to do. The first flight was largely organized by the batch of 2000. Now members of the other batches are willing to support as well.
FIRST PUBLISHED31.05.2020 | 04:46 PM IST