Callous and clueless, Modi Government leaves the poor, migrant workers in the lurch

The migrant labour issue exposes the incompetence of the Modi government; it shows us that this government is unequal to the challenge of navigating the Indian ship

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

NR Mohanty

As we enter national lockdown 3.0, it is time to ask: what have we, as a nation, done right and what have we done wrong?

Well, the only thing we seem to have done right is to declare a national lockdown before it got too late. Everything else appears to have been a botched story.

Our Prime Minister announced the national lockdown 1.0 on national television on March 24th night, with less than four hours’ notice. That, on the face of it, appeared a bold decision, but, as it happens often, unpremeditated ‘bold’ decisions tend to take a disastrous turn.

That the big decision to lock down the country was taken in a cavalier manner was exposed in the next two days when hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, with women and children on toe, were on the streets looking for ways to get back to their native places. With the movement of buses and trains shut, the only way they could reach home was on foot. The enormity of the challenge was that they had to walk hundreds of kilometers -- in some cases, more than a thousand kilometers – to get to their homes.

What is astounding is that the issue of migrant workers had completely escaped the attention of our Prime Minister when he announced the three-week lockdown, despite the fact that these workers constitute a very large number, bigger than the population of any of the European nations.

The 2011 census had pegged the number of internal migrant workers at 139 million. The Economic Survey of the Government of India, in 2017, had calculated that 9 million daily wage workers migrated from one state to another in each of the five years between 2011 and 2016.

How could our government be oblivious of the existence of such a large work force?

When the issue blew in their face and the worldwide attention was drawn to the plight of the migrant labour, the Prime Minister and other leaders of the party assured them that they must stay put where they are and their interest would be taken care of.

And how did the government go about taking care of their interest? It appealed to their landlords not to demand rent and not to evict them for non-payment of rent. It appealed to factory owners, real estate developers and other employers to give these workers salaries even as they were not in a position to work due to the lockdown.

The absurdity of the situation was evident on the ground. Several ground reports told us that migrant labourers were unceremoniously driven out of the one-room sets they lived in; almost all factory and real estate workers were asked to sit out without pay till the business re-started with full vigour.

When enterprising journalists caught up with builders and factory owners and asked why did they pay a deaf ear to the Prime Minister’s appeal to them to continue to give their workers salary as before, all of them had the standard response: If the Prime Minister wants us to pay these workers their salary, even as they are not able to work, then the government has to pitch in and reimburse the money. How can we afford to pay the salary ourselves when we are incurring huge losses due to the stoppage of work at the factories and real estate projects, they asked.

They have a case in point. The government must not merely deliver homilies; it should be ready to hand out hard cash. Most governments facing the covid pandemic have done that. The Boris Johnson government of the United Kingdom has announced a stimulus package that provided for 70-80 per cent reimbursement of the salaries of the factory workers and employees of small and medium businesses.

Even the Trump Administration in the US rolled out a generous package for the semi-skilled and unskilled workers who had been suddenly rendered jobless due to the stay-at-home orders. More than 3.3 million workers have reported joblessness so far and they have been handed out unemployment compensation almost matching the amount they were earning before the shutdown.

But look at India. There is neither an attempt to register those who have become jobless and give them compensation directly, nor is there any move to fund the factory owners and other small and medium scale employers to enable them to pay salary to their employees. The callousness of the fifth largest economy of the world towards its poor is starkly evident.

The union government’s case was that it was not in a position to give these migrant workers any financial compensation but it would provide for their food and shelter. It asked the state governments to arrange for their stay and two meals a day. The state governments have not taken this directive kindly as it is a stretch on their finances and the Centre is refusing to give them a compensatory package to bear the expenses.

Look at the consequence: the migrant workers and their families have been huddled together in cramped rooms at a time when physical distancing is the buzzword. They often have to walk miles to reach a food distribution centre.

The union government has not merely been callous; it is completely clueless as to how to tackle the crisis. Look at its double standard: it cited the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) and prohibited the Kerala government from opening barber shops and West Bengal government from allowing the sweet shops to open for three hours every day.

After weeks of insisting that the migrant workers must stay put where they are as the NDMA was in force and their movement was not permitted, the Centre looked the other way when the Uttar Pradesh government deployed 1000 buses to bring back migrant workers from different cities in various states.

And the absurdity of it all is that the centre has not officially relaxed the provision of the NDMA to allow this movement of the buses; it has been rendered a mute spectator when its orders have been brazenly flouted by the Uttar Pradesh government.

The migrant labourer issue – it is just one of the several issues that exposes the ineptitude of the government in the current pandemic crisis – tells us how mindlessly the Government of India takes big and ‘bold’ decisions without taking into concern the fate of the poor, how it shows no empathy to the poor when they are left penniless for no fault of their own and how it makes a mockery of the very law it has enforced itself.

The migrant labour issue reconfirms that we have a government that is both incompetent and clueless. It has been given the responsibility to navigate the ship of the nation, but, alas, all that it can do is fiddle with it!

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