Almost 10 million migrant workers are desperate to return to their native states once the lockdown eases a bit after May 3. The success of this large pan-India exercise would need meticulous planning and checks to ensure that safety is not compromised during coronavirus peak.
It was a tearful homecoming for over 12,000 migrant workers from UP who took government-arranged buses to reach their native districts of Meerut, Ghaziabad and Baghpat. Similar joy was written large on the faces of dozens of Odia migrant workers who took buses from Surat to reach their native state’s Ganjam district after being stranded at shelter homes for nearly 40 days during the lockdown. They are among some 25 million similar migrant workers from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Telangana who are desperate to reunite with their families in their native states to weather the uncertain times of employment disruption and hunger in the states of their employment.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi hinted to most Chief Ministers about his plans to let the lockdown curbs to dilute gradually after May 3, the immediate challenge facing the country is the rehabilitation of migrant workers in their native states, without leading to a spurt in coronavirus. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while issuing guidelines for shifting back migrant workers to their states, said buses will be allowed for the interstate movement of the people and they should be sanitised between trips. The order read. "The moving person(s) would be screened and those found asymptomatic would be allowed to proceed." Since the numbers are large, some states like Bihar and Rajasthan have asked the Centre to consider running special trains for the mass reverse migration.
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has plans to bring back almost 10 lakh migrant workers of the state from various other provinces where they have got stuck due to the lockdown.
A glimpse of the dangers of migrant workers’ anger and anxiety jeopardising social distancing norms became evident from the flare up in IIT Hyderabad campus where nearly 2,500 construction workers from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh attacked their company’s officials and vandalised vehicles while demanding two months’ unpaid salaries and seeking early return to their native villages.
The Uttar Pradesh government’s plan to build shelters and quarantine centres to house 15,000 to 20,000 people in each district indicates the magnitude of the problem posed by the lockdown and related restrictions on transportation that has stranded millions of migrant workers. In the initial days of the lockdown, the shutdown had triggered an exodus from cities from where migrant workers tried to rush back to their home states. The helpline for migrant workers set up by the UP government in Maharashtra got a whooping one lakh phone calls while those in Delhi got nearly 50,000 phones. As a precursor to the evacuation of state residents from other provinces, the Adityanath government asked all states to share data on the number of UP residents housed in various shelter homes for over two weeks and have tested negative for the pandemic.
Despite some state government’s welfare initiatives during these testing times, many of the migrants are paying from their pockets to fund their tortuous journey back home. Surat Collector Dhavalkumar Patel, who coordinated for the travel of Surat migrant workers with Ganjam Collector Vijay Amruta Kulange, hinted that the funding for bus travel had been partially managed by migrant workers themselves. Each migrant reportedly contributed Rs 3,500 while a local Odia Society arranged for their food on the way.
The focus has shifted on migrant workers at a time when the Centre has informed the Supreme Court that it is coordinating with various state governments for return of non-infected migrant workers to their native states from states where they were employed.
A three-judge bench headed by Justice N V Ramana, and comprising Justices S K Kaul and B R Gavai was hearing a PIL filed by Jagdeep Chhokar who alleged that 90% of the migrant workers stranded in states of their employment were suffering in the absence of food and wages. The petition said the Centre should allow migrant workers who have tested negative for Covid-19 to return home. Another plea is pending before the apex court on the matter of directing Central and the State governments to ensure payments of wages/minimum wages to all migrant workers, whether self-employed or otherwise, during the period of the lockdown.
Meanwhile, labour, youth, women’s organisations and trade unions that have come together under the banner of Resistance in the Time of Lockdown criticised the recent move of the Central government to freeze hike in Dearness Allowance and Dearness Relief for the Central Government employees and pensioners till June 2021. The organisations said the government’s purported motive of austerity and saving revenue in the face of a financial crunch due to Covid-19 pandemic was mindless.
The organisations said the government still remains apathetic to the misery of the labouring masses, and continues to pamper the elites and corporates with generous tax cuts announced earlier this year. While the masses remain in the grips of starvation and destitution amid lockdown, the government has come out with several measures which can be construed as mere lip-service to allegedly alleviate their suffering. However, it has till now not made any attempts to tax the vast wealth of the corporate houses of the country. Instead, it has shamefully asked them to voluntarily contribute to the PM-CARES fund. It should be noted that labouring masses have been deprived of their share in the economy, even as the corporates continue to mint profits and enjoy tax rebates, while expressing fake concern for the masses.
The organisations demanded that heavy tax should be imposed on the corporate houses and business establishments to help tide over the crisis. Also, wealth tax which was revoked by the BJP government in 2016 and inheritance-tax should be re-introduced. The amount so generated should be used to provide basic minimum income to the all the workers and labouring masses for 3 months.
As apparent, the Modi government’s post-May 3 plan to gradually exit the lockdown will entail assisting migrant workers, students and tourists stranded on non-native states to return under stringent checks so that they do not carry coronavirus to their home states. The standard operating procedure of testing each of the moving person and allowing only coronavirus negative people to carry on would hopefully ensure that the contagion does not spread.
The days ahead would need extreme caution for ensuring that the advantages of a 40-day lockdown are not squandered in the rush to reunite millions of stranded migrant workers with their families in their native states. Hopefully, Modi and Shah will work out an acceptable process for bringing succour to migrant workers and partially restarting industries which rely on these workers for manufacturing. Most states where the workers are currently stranded don't want all their migrant workforce to move out as they are eager to resume factories and industries after May 3.