Safe return: On migrant worker distress

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the distress faced by migrant workers must not be ignored

April 27, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:37 am IST

A month after one of the most stringent global lockdowns was imposed in India to tackle the pandemic , the travails of the migrant worker have shown no signs of ending. The government told the Supreme Court in late March that arrangements had been made to provide temporary shelters with food for migrant workers and as of then, none of them was on the road, just days after the lockdown had triggered an exodus of people to their native places. But reports have shown that thousands continue to travel long distances , most of them by foot, to escape distress conditions or to their families. Meanwhile, lakhs of workers, who were dependent upon daily and casual labour, are still stranded in Mumbai and Delhi without wages. The functioning of shelters in several places has been uneven across States and metropolitan cities. With the ongoing lockdown hurting the economy, the Finance Ministry’s relief measures have been insufficient in providing for their needs. Some migrant workers, who stare at a continuing loss of livelihoods in their adopted places of work, are better off depending upon the social safety nets and familial support structures in their native places. They should be allowed to avail these in a dignified and humane way. Restarting work under the MGNREGA that went dormant in the earlier period of the lockdown, has provided an incentive for workers to leave for their native places. It is evident that the option of keeping workers at their respective places is no longer viable and the Centre must work at ways to allow for their transport to their native places.

India, among other Asian countries such as its neighbours in the subcontinent, Malaysia and others, has managed to avoid the high fatalities and infection rates that have been seen in Europe and North America. The lockdown has helped, but it has come at a huge humanitarian and economic cost. The question of whether to extend a lockdown amid an economic crisis is a moral dilemma that can be resolved only through practical steps that compensate the poor and the workers in the unorganised sector, and protect the old and the infirm. Maharashtra, the State with the highest incidence of COVID-19 cases, besides having the largest number of migrant workers, has urged the Centre to plan and resume railway services for the labourers once the lockdown ends on May 3; it is a request the Centre must heed. It is futile trying to blame workers for flocking to railway stations as had happened in mid-April. States such as Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are also gearing up to facilitate their return. These steps are welcome. Allowing migrant travel in a safe way by train that provides for the necessary physical distancing is the least that the government can do.

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