Coronavirus | Centre slow to absorb lockdown impact on the poor, say activists

Activists point to inadequacy in the relief work for migrant workers

Updated - April 13, 2020 01:40 am IST

Published - April 12, 2020 09:50 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Harsh Mander. File photo: K. Ragesh

Harsh Mander. File photo: K. Ragesh

A response filed by activist Harsh Mander to a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) status report in the Supreme Court accused the Centre of being slow to absorb the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the poor.

Also read | Centre files report on migrant workers

While the MHA report says the Central and State governments were “doing their best strategising human resources and other resources to come out of this unprecedented global crisis”, Mr. Mander and fellow activist Anjali Bhardwaj countered that the statistics from the same report gave a different picture. At the most, the report showed wide regional variations and overall inadequacy in the relief work for the displaced poor.

Also read | Centre tells States to set up camps for migrant workers

For example, Kerala and Maharashtra have 72% of the total number of relief camps in the country. Kerala alone has nearly 60% of the camps, though the tiny State accounts for 2.6% of India’s population. States such as Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, which have seen the lion’s share of the migrant exodus, have only 12% of relief camps and shelters. Haryana and Delhi account for 51% of the food distribution.

Mr. Mander and Ms. Bhardwaj has argued in their petition that the declaration of the 21-day lockdown without prior information “precipitated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis” for migrant workers, resulting in their mass exodus to their home towns.

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Mr. Mander, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, said the MHA’s assurance that it would arrange counselling for migrant workers to help them tide over the psychological impact of the pandemic was, indeed, a “welcome measure”. But a more immediate need would be for the government to pay them minimum wages to ensure their survival.

“Other than food, migrant workers need to be provided money for addressing their other basic needs like healthcare, education of their children, rent and sustenance of their families. Minimum wages are fixed by governments taking into account the cost of living in each State... The government should provide them minimum wages,” the activists contended.

State Helpline numbers for COVID-19 | e-Book on COVID-19 | Coronavirus April 12 updates

They said the government’s ₹1.7 lakh crore package was announced 36 hours after the lockdown started. By then, the panic had set it, resulting in their exodus from the cities. They said government announcements that migrant workers need not pay rent and employers should pay them wages ignored the harsh realities of their lives. For one, they lived in poor settlements where there was no formal rent agreements. Secondly, most of the migrant population were self-employed like rickshaw-pullers. Thirdly, the government had no record of people working in the informal sector.

“The financial package under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana is inadequate to deal with the scale of the current crisis and many [components] of the scheme will not benefit migrant workers... ₹1.7 lakh crore constitutes only around 1% of the GDP... Many elements of the scheme are merely front-loading instalments of the existing schemes or disbursement cess funds earmarked for the welfare of particular sectors or programmes in the pipeline,” the activists said.

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