Editorial

Short end of the stick: on assistance to migrant workers

Migrant workers, who simply cannot fend for themselves, need urgent state assistance

It has been nearly a week since the Centre’s lockdown measures to slow down the spread of SARS-CoV-2 came into force. But what was done as a means to address a public health challenge has now transformed itself into a humanitarian crisis for many among the poorer segments of India’s urban population. The most affected section has been the inter-State migrant worker community, thousands of whom have been leaving cities such as Delhi, even on foot, for their towns in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere. Their plight was not unexpected. With a lockdown, migrant workers dependent upon casual and daily wage labour, unorganised retail and other such jobs, were severely affected and sought the comfort of the social net in their towns over the uncertainty of employment, and therefore of money and resources to fend for themselves over the 21 days. Physical distancing in a country where most people are involved in unorganised labour, and who are dependent upon fragile livelihoods defined in daily and even hourly wage earnings, was always going to be problematic. That the Central government announced the lockdown on March 24, with just a four-hour notice, made it even harder for these people to figure out ways to weather the challenge. Their exodus, by foot along highways finally compelled some authorities to start bus services, but these were abruptly halted. The Home Ministry issued notices to States to open highway relief camps while observing physical distancing norms. Later on Sunday, the Ministry directed State and Union Territory governments to enforce the lockdown strictly and prevent migrants from leaving cities; instead, there are to be temporary shelters with essentials for the stranded poor.

These belated steps can only work if implemented in a humane manner. Herding the families of the migrant workers into ill-equipped quarantine camps will only incentivise others to leave for their native States. Governments must use schools and college hostels for the migrants to stay and also utilise the Public Distribution System to provide food. All said, the suffering of the migrant worker is an indictment of the unpreparedness of governments to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The first infected Indian in the country was detected in late January. The severity of the disease as it spread outside China and affected countries such as Italy was evident a little later, but there was enough time for the government to be prepared for the impending spread in India. Better coordination with the States and a more transparent approach would have helped people prepare for the lockdown. As infections have slowly begun to rise, there is little time to be lost in addressing both the public health problem and the lockdown’s economic impact. Much could have been done better, but the focus now must be on what can be done.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 7:29:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/short-end-of-the-stick-on-assistance-to-migrant-workers/article31211587.ece

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