How migrants are the real Covid heroes

Even government supporters must acknowledge that enough could not be done to address the tribulations of our migrant workers.

 |  4-minute read |   20-05-2020
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Monday, May 18. The morning news showed massive crowds of migrant workers in long lines at the Ram Lila Maidan, Ghaziabad. Mostly from Bihar, they were desperately trying to get back home. The process was unwieldy, dangerous and ineffective. Supposedly, all they had to do was to register themselves to get onto the special trains to transport them to their destinations. But, prior to that, they had to find a place on the feeder buses that would take them to the trains.

A recipe for chaos

To say the least, it was a chaotic scene. Obviously, registering for that frantically needed but the elusive ride back home was much more testing and difficult than the authorities had projected.

I was horrified and concerned as I watched these tens of thousands of jostling workers pushed back by the outnumbered police and officials. Obviously, social distancing norms were impossible to maintain. It was clear that these workers were more worried about how to get out of the metropolis than of Covid-19. Their jobs, incomes, housing arrangements, even rations and daily needs, were no longer secure. As one of those interviewed put it, “Starvation is worse than the disease.”

main_migrant_ram-lil_052020102302.jpgThe massive crowds of migrant workers in long queues at the Ram Lila Maidan in Ghaziabad were desperately trying to get back home. (Photo: PTI)

How many of them were actually active or passive shedders of the virus or how many would they infect others on returning home — all this was anybody’s guess or nightmare. Any citizen watching that scene would have been alarmed at the enormity of the challenge that India faces. We have been exposed to heart-wrenching stories of workers being killed on railway tracks or in truck collisions, stranded by the roadside without water or food, collapsing out of heat and exhaustion on the way, or even dying soon after reaching home. Some have walked hundreds of kilometres or hitched rides, paying exorbitant or extortionary amounts just to get out of the cities. Many “ghost villages,” with almost no able-bodied young, are now being repopulated.

Even government supporters must acknowledge that enough could not be done to address the tribulations of our migrant workers. Critics of the government, accusing it of mishandling the crisis, have cottoned on the troubles of the migrants. In the present circumstances, it is more important to try to understand the dimensions of the problem.

An uphill task

According to the 2011 Census, the number of internal migrant workers in India is over 50 million or five crores. The Economic Survey of India puts the number even higher, close to 100 million or 10 crores if the drawbacks of the counting process are taken into account. All told, about 20 per cent of our workforce consists of migrants. This is a staggering number.

In its deposition before the Supreme Court in April, the Government claimed only about 1.5 million (15 lakh) migrants were on the move. But a few days back, Gujarat reported that some two million (20 lakh) migrants had registered to leave. Not surprisingly, there have been weekly reports of skirmishes between migrants and authorities in labour-intensive cities like Surat. Even if most of the 50-100 million migrants are not travelling back to their hometowns now, their number is much higher than what the government expected or acknowledged. Add to this the strife between the Central and State governments on this issue and we have a sense of how gargantuan our difficulties are.

The road ahead

There is no point complaining about what should have been done. Yes, special arrangements, trains or buses, and so on, might have been planned from the start of the lockdown on March 24. But now it is better to focus on what lies ahead, both to protect the migrants and ease their way back home. Also, let us not forget that their mass evacuation also means a huge depletion of the workforce. This is bound adversely to affect the nation’s productivity in the coming quarters. Therefore, their possible return to the cities must also be anticipated, depending on the extent of the resumption in economic activities.

Back home, only giving these returned migrants doles is not a good idea. Other work opportunities must be facilitated. I disagree with those in the opposition who are asking for money to be thrown at these hardworking people. Our labourers are not beggars or supplicants. All they need is some help to tide them over a difficult period. More importantly, governments should aim at making them economically self-reliant and productive. That would be our greatest contribution to their amelioration. That is, after getting them home safely and keeping them healthy, which is the first priority.

Instead of only criticising the government, NGOs, religious and cultural organisations, district and local groups, and common citizens must join in help tide over the crisis. Our heart goes out to this vulnerable section which has taken the brunt of the epidemic. They are our real Covid-19 warriors and heroes.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: They're not fleeing the pandemic, they're fleeing us: What Covid says about India's privilege divide

Writer

Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views are personal.

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