One of the most telling human stories to result from the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting nationwide lockdown is that of stranded migrant workers. But theirs isn't a new story; it's taken a pandemic for urban India to take note of an issue that has remained an unseen aspect of the country's economy for much of its contemporary history. P Sainath, founder of People's Archive of Rural India (PARI) and Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient, has chronicled the migrant condition for several decades. In an interview, he details the current situation of workers, and the possible way forward.

With a workforce as huge as the one in India, what do you think of the communication of governments to workers?

We gave a nation of 1.3 billion human beings four hours to shut down their lives. MG Devasahayam, one of our legendary civil servants, had said, "A small infantry brigade being pushed into a major action is given more than four hours notice." Whether or not we agree with the migrant workers, the rationale in leaving was absolutely sound. They know — and every hour we are proving — how untrustworthy, inconsiderate and cruel their governments, factory owners and middle-class employers like us are. And we are proving that with laws to restrict their freedom of movement.

You created panic. You sent the country into complete chaos with millions on the highway. We could have easily converted the marriage halls, schools and colleges and community centres that were shut down into shelter homes for migrants and homeless. We declared star hotels into quarantine centres for people returning from abroad.

When we arrange trains for the migrants, we charge them full fare. Then we put in AC trains and Rajdhani class fares of Rs 4,500. To make it worse, you say the tickets can be booked online, assuming they all have smartphones. Some of them buy those tickets. But in Karnataka, they cancel them because the chief minister meets the builders, who say the slaves are escaping. What you are witnessing is the quelling of an anticipated slave rebellion.

We have always had one standard for the poor, and one for others. Even though, when you list essential services, you are finding out that it is only the poor people who are essential, apart from doctors. Many of the nurses are not well-off. Besides them, there are sanitation workers, ASHA workers, aanganwadi workers, electricity workers, power sector workers, and factory workers. Suddenly you are finding how inessential the elite are to this country.