Migrants and governments: A Covid-19 story of mismatch

Migrants are in news during coronavirus lockdown for all wrong reasons. Despite the government’s assurance, the lot of migrant workers has not improved.

India always had an internal problem of migrants. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made it look worse. More than 10 crore people are estimated to be migrant workers in India. A vast majority of them have been pushed out from poorer states to more developed ones.

With the country going under a lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the migrant workers are in desperation to go back home. The railways on Monday said it has run 468 Shramik Special trains so far, ferrying over 5 lakh migrants. They are but a fraction of those who wish to go home.

That the migrants carry the burden of India’s GDP growth on their shoulders is evident from their labour in construction industry, farms of agriculturally developed states, sprawling offices in the services sector, vendors lining up vegetable and fruit markets in big urban clusters, milk and food delivery boys, newspaper hawkers and factories in manufacturing hubs of the country.

That the migrant workers have never been the focus of serious policy making of governments is also evident from the fact that the there is no concrete number of migrants in India. States have looked clearly clueless in having an effective SOP for sending back migrant workers home in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the government had accurate data about the number of migrant workers, their average monthly income, their family size and their cost of living, it would have known how much they had in their pockets when Shramik Special trains were allowed to run for those stranded in camps.

Had there been data, the railways would not have charged fare plus an additional Rs 50 from the migrant workers after 40 days of lockdown. No government likes to have a policy that tests principles of humanity.

Railways charges regular sleeper class fare, Rs 30 as superfast charges and an additional Rs 20 from each passenger on the Shramik Special trains. The passengers are also charged to ferry them from camps to railway stations; for example, Karnataka charges Rs 140 per head.

This happened despite all the governments saying that they were trying to find a way to reach out to migrants. Had there been enough data in the government’s information network, the impoverishing migrants would have been served food at their doorsteps not only by government agencies but also the NGOs.

Since needed relief from the government did not reach the migrants, they took the most extreme steps along highways and railways lines in the hope of reaching home. Some of them died enroute due to exhaustion, dehydration or heart attack. More unfortunate of them were hit by goods trains or trucks.

Had there been a system in place that could connect the lifeline of Indian economy and the government, many a life could have been saved. What the governments central or any of the states have not admitted is that they are clueless about the migrants’ problems.

Some steps are being taken now, especially by those states which sustain their growth stories with the supply of migrant workforce. Karnataka, for example, announced a relief package for migrant workers last week.

The plan is direct cash transfer to workers engaged in construction sector. This follows meetings between Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa and builders, who opposed the state’s decision to send migrant workers their home states.

But there is a problem with the one-time cash transfer relief plan. The government said the money would go to only registered workers of the construction industry.

While the construction sector in Karnataka has about 16 lakh workers, only 2.5 lakh have registration cards. This also means that most of the inter-state construction workers are ineligible for the relief package brought out “to prevent construction workers from leaving” Karnataka.

While over 2 lakh migrant workers have registered themselves for tickets in the Shramik Special trains, the number is over 4 lakh in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Before the railways modified its Shramik Special guidelines, Tamil Nadu would have required 350 trains to ferry all those registered for the programme.

Maharashtra, perhaps the biggest home for migrants and also the worst coronavirus-affected state, last week sent back tens of migrants who had walked miles to board a special train asking them to first get online passes.

The migrant workers were at fault of not knowing the order for the same that was issued in Marathi. Not all migrants learn the language of the state they work in. Some of them started walking back to their homes instead of procuring online passes.

Meanwhile, home states such as Bihar and Bengal have been skeptical in receiving migrants from certain states. Bihar had withdrawn its blanket approval for all migrants coming from Maharashtra. It decided to give permission on a case-by-case basis. West Bengal said it would not accept any migrant back from Maharashtra. Corona scare is dictating the terms to the governments in deciding on migrants, who are currently have the sense of double victimisation.

Source: India Today

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