The Migrant Mess: Why it happened and how to fix it

India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about how the social and economic marginalisation of the migrant worker is cause for serious concern, in the June 8, 2020 edition of the India Today Magazine.

 |  5-minute read |   29-05-2020
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India is a country that makes you weep at periodic intervals. This is because of the suffering one gets to witness, caused either by natural calamities or man-made ones like government policies, communal hatred and caste prejudices. The past several days have been such a time. In my 45 years of journalism, I have not seen such mass misery. Since the imposition of the world’s harshest lockdown on March 25 in the wake of the Covid pandemic, the country has seen the most searing and heart-breaking images of thousands of migrants trekking back to their villages and towns, driven by fear, or loss of livelihood, or both, in what could be one of the biggest displacements of humans on the planet this century. The fact that thousands have now made the long march to the safety of their distant homes represents a triumph of the human spirit — but also the high threshold of pain our poor migrants are willing to endure, their desperation and lack of faith that the State might offer them any succour. That so many suffered extreme privation is a grim statement on the failure of the central as well as state governments to provide food, transport and shelter to desperate millions.

main_cover_052920043719.jpgIndia Today June 8, 2020 cover, The Migrant Mess.

When the lockdown was announ­ced on the night of March 24, there were only 550 cases and nine deaths in India. The sudden, stringent lockdown to fight a virus brought in by the privileged travelling class inflicted huge suffering on migrant labourers and slum-dwellers in our cities who were totally unprepared for such a contingency. So, it seems, was the government. Of the 11 empowered groups set up on March 29, not one dealt with the impact of the lockdown on migrant labour. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), 122 million people lost their jobs in April alone, three-quarters of them being small traders and daily-wage earners. Confined in congested living spaces, their income lost and having no money to buy food or pay rent, they had little choice but to set out for their original homes where they would be with family, have food to eat and no rent to pay. Back in the cities, they had got only four hours’ notice before the country went into lockdown when even countries like Bangladesh and Singapore gave their citizens a warning of four days, and South Africa three days.

The social and economic marginalisation of the migrant worker is cause for serious concern. The government has Vande Bharat missions to bring back Indians stranded abroad. It had no back-up plan to ferry migrants. This is despite having one of the world’s largest armies and paramilitary forces, a massive road and railway network and idle fleets of public transport buses. No one, it seems, thought it fit to deploy these national assets to evacuate citizens who are the life-blood of our cities and, by one estimate, contribute 10 per cent to our GDP. The intervention, when it came, was too little, too late. The first trains to evacuate them started running only a month after the lockdown and that too after an embarrassing public haggling between the Centre and states on who would pay their fare. Meanwhile, the long march of the dispossessed had already begun and even the offer of free food for three months announced two days after the lockdown did not hold them back. Those waiting to get on a train were confronted with the haphazard policies of the Centre and states and a bureaucratic maze. Furthermore, it took the government 53 days to set up a National Migrant Information System for states to monitor the movement of people.

Statistical information over the years exposes claims that the government was unaware of the number of migrants. The National Sample Survey of 2008-09, for instance, said that migrants make up over 28 per cent of India’s labour force and over 40 per cent of the population of our two largest metros — Delhi and Mumbai. In March this year, the government informed Parliament that there were 100 million migrant workers in the country. Government schemes seem to have completely missed them because most of them work in the informal sector. It was only in the fifth instalment of the central government’s Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package in mid-May that some relief was announced for migrant workers, but in the form of easier credit access, not direct cash transfers, and the promise of a portable ration card. Its implementation was left to the states, demanding greater coordination between source and destination states.

Our cover story, ‘The Migrant Mess’, put together by Senior Editor Kaushik Deka, with inputs from our bureaus across the country, examines this complex issue. Group Photo Editor Bandeep Singh and Associate Editor Amitabh Srivastava travelled to quarantine facilities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, respectively, two states that send out the largest number of migrants to other states, to assess how they are handling their return. Journalist and Magsaysay Award winner P Sainath highlights, in a very insightful essay, how the migrant problem has been in the making for decades because of the agrarian crisis, to which scant attention has been paid. According to him, Census 2011 revealed that for the first time since 1921, the population growth of urban India had outstripped that of the countryside. On average, 2,000 farmers had lost the main cultivator status every day since 1991. These are shocking facts. The migrant phenomenon also underlines the uneven economic development of states that propelled migration and created the problems we are seeing today. These are fundamental root causes that need to be addressed if we are not to find ourselves in the same bind again.

The migrant’s exodus could add to our ongoing economic crisis. Rural India cannot absorb them but needs their remittances. Urban India needs them because their absence could delay economic revival. If migrants don’t return to their workplace, a human tragedy could well become an economic one.

(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, The Migrant Mess, for June 8, 2020)

Also read | How to Prevent a Breakdown: What India must do

Writer

Aroon Purie Aroon Purie @aroonpurie

The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of the India Today Group.

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