Heartbreaking images of the gruelling trek back home of distressed migrant labourers and the tragic loss of lives in road accidents have shaken India’s conscience. The operation Shramik Express, which is ensuring the safe return of over four million migrants by buses and trains, shows that the government has mounted a whatever-it-takes response.
Migrant labourers are the backbone of India’s informal sector and micro, small and medium enterprises. Their crisscrossing of states for jobs signifies economic integration, and also inter-regional and rural-urban disparities. While empowering themselves, they also enrich their home and host states. The national lockdown has threatened to unravel this fabric. Their exodus from host states has created a humanitarian and health security challenge, and a logistical nightmare. It has complicated Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s mission to contain the coronavirus contagion. It has posed a long-term labour dislocation and atrophy risk. It is already impacting the restart of economic activities and recovery plans activated by the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-reliant India Mission).
The Opposition is using the situation to critique the government’s strategy for handling the coronavirus disease. As concerned stakeholders, they must recognise that an all-of-India effort is required. The PM is driving India’s Raja Bhagirath-like efforts to respond to the cataclysm in the spirit of cooperative and consultative federalism, with empathy for the poor, including “pravasi shramiks”. The infectious virus has pushed governments into untrodden policy and action space. Any life-saving action in prevention and response extracts Bhagirath’s penance.
States decide on extension and enforcement of lockdown, and are responsible for providing relief. The Centre had to persuade the states to agree to the mass transportation of workers with the attendant risks of contagion. Some chief ministers such as Yogi Adityanath have been proactive, while others are hesitant and unprepared. In the future, Centre-state protocols must be established for instant implementation in disasters.
It is important to collect comprehensive migrant worker-related data and statistics that are skill-, sector-, and gender-disaggregated, pan-India and state-wise. Its absence has blindsided all on the scale of the migrant labour challenge and frustrated efforts to reach them to help with food, cash health services, shelter or relocation to home/host state.
The information asymmetry poor migrants faced to access information on relief, benefits and transport needs to be addressed. Many became prey to disinformation, unscrupulous touts and motivated panic-mongers. Well-functioning hotlines, outreach systems and providing low-cost smart phones and IT education are crucial.
Many migrant workers left cities for fear of disease and stigma, job, shelter, income, food insecurity, and to be with families. Others stayed in cities due to pull factors: Better wages, jobs, economic and social upward mobility prospects.
The challenges they face on return to their home states include resistance from their communities fearing infection and lack of income and employment. Governments must provide for their local sustenance and employment and return to host states.
Targeted and ecosystem support for migrant workers is a major thrust of the Atmanirbhar Bharat package. A veritable Abhiyaan for migrant workers’ welfare and empowerment must be driven with state governments on a war-footing. At this time, migrant workers’ well-being and unleashing their potential is vital to India’s survival and economic revival.
Lakshmi Puri is a former assistant secretary general, United Nations, former deputy executive director of UN Women, and former acting deputy secretary general of UNCTAD
The views expressed are personal