www.telanganatoday.com | March 31, 2020
When the world is fighting Covid-19, India’s inter-State migrants are fighting an uncaring system of governance. Starved due to non-availability of jobs and worried about their family back home, these migrants are in a rush to secure a spot in the limited number of overcrowded buses that are operational now.
Many of them are travelling on roofs and some clinging to bus ladder risking their lives and discarding the social distancing protocols. Those who are unfortunate to not get on a bus to their villages are walking all the way to their homes hoping that they would make it without dying in the streets or catching the infection due to the exposure. Chaotic visuals from the Delhi Anand Vihar bus stand are nothing less than traumatic. It is a grim reminder of how we treat our army of blue-collar labourers, who build and run the country at the ground level.
After being severely criticised for the lack of proper planning and delayed lockdown guidelines, the Central government announced the sealing of borders and restriction of movements of its 1.3 billion people. Left with little option, these migrant workers were forced to flee on foot or whichever way they could. These circumstances raise some pertinent questions about the differential treatment of India towards its international and internal migrants.
The government was swift in responding to the needs of the NRIs. It opened a centralised control room, arranged evacuation flights, issued travel advisories and did their risk profiling on return. However, it conveniently chose to neglect the largely destitute inter-State migrant workers, and that too at a time when the lockdown puts them at risk with very limited access to food or healthcare.
State governments also woke up to this reality late, though there are a few exceptions like the Kerala government. In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Kerala opened community kitchens as well as around 5,000 relief camps for its migrant ‘guest workers’ with provisions for food, masks, soaps and other essential items. The Telangana government, in association with builders and contractors, has also initiated measures to ensure the safety and needs of migrant workers. Similar reports are coming in from States like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Delhi and Rajasthan.
Nevertheless, these interim measures are not adequate to address the scale of problems and hardships faced by the migrant labourers in such emergencies. Lack of alternative livelihoods in their villages pushes the labourers to the urban centres where they have to struggle for a living. In these urban centres, they are often exploited and forced to work in deplorable conditions. In most instances, their human and labour rights are not protected.
Neglected All Over
Despite positive outcomes of migration and their contribution to building the country, these labourers are neglected when framing schemes and policies at all levels of public policymaking. Contractors, who are expected to take care of their safety and welfare, deceive them by not paying even the lawful minimum wages or registering them for availing benefits.
Lack of social protection net and the non-portability of social security schemes alongside the exclusion from public services in the host societies make them very vulnerable. Insecurity and uncertainty about the future is the daily grim reality for these distressed floating population of India. The latest Central government order to close down the State and district borders to stop the exodus of migrants at a potential Stage-3 of the outbreak is symptomatic of the mess in migration management in the country.
It is pertinent to address why these migrant labourers are trying to flee to their villages by risking their lives and potentially their family back home by exposing them as well to a possible community infection. They are aware that there will be strict surveillance on any attempted movement between State borders that may result in harsh retribution. Still many are hitting the streets hoping to reach home.
The reasons are many. The most important is that they do not feel the sense of security of being at home in these largely hostile and discriminating urban spaces where they are secluded and treated as second class citizens. Hence, they are in a constant urge to return to their villages, to their homes and their family with enough money saved for livelihood.
However, breaking the vicious circle of relative poverty is back-breaking, and the situation lamentably persists. Besides that, the worry about the wellbeing of the left-behind family of elderly, wife and children is an overbearing emotional ordeal for them. Prolonged physical separation induces mental and physical health outcomes, which we rarely address in public policy and discourses. Unless and until our governments are effective in fulfilling the needs of the marginalised communities, these labourers who move from one place to another in search of jobs will endlessly agonise for their home.
Consider Covid-19 as an opportunity for us to change the way we treat our inter-State migrant workers. This is the time to establish coordinating mechanisms to better manage internal migration at home and host societies by involving all the stakeholders, including Central, State and local governments, employers, trade unions and civil society organisations.
This is the time to initiate and reinforce effective and non-discriminatory labour laws based on human rights as well as targeted social schemes for housing, food, water, sanitation, skill development and medical facilities for their overall welfare and progress. Let us make our cities a better home for the migrant workforce so that they do not have to search for a home elsewhere.
- Prof. Divya Balan, Assistant Professor - International Studies
*Views expressed are personal.