05 - 07 - 2020

The unending ordeal of migrant workers

THE defining image of India’s lockdown to combat Covid-19 has become the grim sight of migrant workers trudging on highways to their homes, located hundreds of kilometres away.

Their dogged determination to flee the cities where they are daily wage workers has not gone away despite several state governments assuring that both food and shelter will be provided to them.

The initial impulse was understandable. In the absence of any food or shelter, and no way of earning money, these workers concluded that going home to their villages was the only solution as their families would take care of them. But even after repeated pleas from the states to stay at one location and enable the authorities to take care of their immediate needs, the vast majority preferred to place their faith in their families living in the villages rather than any fickle sarkar in the cities.

The plight of these workers is bleak as they have lost jobs and any hope of having cash in hand along with the lockdown. To add to their woes, as the media reports revealed, many were asked to vacate their rented accommodation immediately.

They could see no future, barring a long march on the highway back to their homes. Given the fact that these were destinations as far away as 500 to 1,500 kilometres away, it seems somewhat irrational for them to have started out on these impossible treks. It might have been more logical to seek out shelter homes in their respective cities where food might be available. Some states like Delhi opened hunger relief kitchens, albeit belatedly, and expanded shelter facilities. Kerala also made rapid arrangements for relief camps.

Even so, workers thronged the bus stations in Delhi. There were demonstrations in Kerala relief camps, demanding transport to go back home. The reason for this single-minded determination is best explained in Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s pathbreaking book, Poor Economics. It points out that the psychology of the poor is difficult to understand unless you place yourself in their shoes in the real sense. That is, take into account the element of hopelessness that pervades the lives of many of the poorest of the poor.

In this particular case, the announcement of the lockdown in Delhi immediately after the Janata Curfew on March 22 should have been accompanied by directives to factories and small establishments to ensure that payments to contract workers are not stopped. Details of relief camps also needed to be provided simultaneously so that migrants had places of refuge. The Capital’s lockdown was followed by the countrywide lockdown and, again, there was no word from the states on plans for shelter or support for the migrant workers stranded in the big cities. The responsibility for this lacuna lies on both the Central and state governments.

It is an enormous lacuna, given the size of what is known as the unorganised sector. Employment in this sector was estimated a decade ago by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) at about 43.7 crore. Of these, 24.6 crore are employed in the agricultural sector, 4.4 crore in construction and the rest in manufacturing and services. It has also been estimated that the informal sector accounts for anywhere between 85 and 93 per cent of all employment in the country.

Even so, it is clear that those who work in this informal sector remain ‘invisible’ in a large sense to policymakers who are preoccupied with those in the very vocal and visible organised segment of the economy. For a change, this segment has become very visible by walking hundreds of kilometres and, thereby, highlighting government apathy.

What has added insult to injury has been the brutal behaviour of police forces all over the country with those already facing joblessness and potential starvation. The police initially treated those walking on the highways with condemnable violence, though this was followed later by directives to provide food and transport. This is the same kind of mindless harassment in the form of beatings meted out to those who were moving to provide essential goods, including newspapers, at the beginning of the lockdown.

The latter led to disruptions in supply chains, which are now belatedly being put back on track. But there has been no regret expressed by the Home Ministry or state governments over this systematic harassment of those providing critical services at a time of extreme stress for the general public due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The negative visuals of the hapless migrant workers galvanised some states like UP to mobilise buses to transport them to their destinations. But workers and their families continue to do their long marches on the country’s roads and highways in a desperate bid to reach home. In some cases, the homecoming ended with bizarre incidents like spraying people with chemicals and soap solutions.

Hopefully, the public outcry will mean an end to such incidents while the Supreme Court is also playing a role by calling for proper facilities for the migrants. The government sadly seems to be in denial, insisting none are now on the roads, contrary to media reports.

The movement of lakhs of workers from the urban areas to rural hinterlands may not be desirable, but clearly there has been a failure to provide support and reassurance to this critical segment of the population. It may conceivably raise the prospect of spreading Covid-19 in regions yet untouched by the virus.

Even so, all these issues need to be tackled in a humane fashion, taking into account the economic uncertainties faced by the migrants. Reports that villages are insisting on health checks and quarantine before allowing the migrants back home are encouraging, but it is to be hoped that such activity is carried out in a rational and sensitive manner.

What is equally of concern is that these workers are the backbone of the industry and services throughout the country. As and when the lockdown is lifted and efforts are made to revive economic activity, the process will be slow as these key players will be absent from the scene. It is up to the Centre and the state governments to not only rehabilitate the migrant workers right now, but also ensure that they are no longer forgotten in future while formulating any policies.

Sushma Ramachandran
Senior Financial Journalist