Migrant workers spooked at the spectre of another lockdown trigger a minor exodus
With COVID cases rising and the administration enforcing night curfew and weekend lockdowns, migrant workers cannot be blamed for trying to leave cities. Much more than lip-service is required
The fear of another lockdown has returned after a year to haunt migrant workers. While there is less chaos this time than last year, people are not less fear stricken. This time, migrant workers are leaving their workplaces with less chaos but in equally large numbers. Overflowing crowds at railway stations and in trains, bus terminals and buses provide some indication and there will soon be an acute shortage of labour if the trend continues, reversing whatever recovery the economy has made.
While everybody in the Government is avoiding the word lockdown, migrant workers can see how all sectors of the economy are being shut down one by one, first during the night and then on weekends. Once bitten twice shy, workers do not want get trapped again if another lockdown is imposed. Migrant workers can hardly be blamed for not taking the words and assurances given by the ruling leaders at face value. That is why they are returning. There is clearly a great trust deficit. Employers also by and large are not in a position to give assurances and facilitate their stay in the cities.
When the lockdown was announced on March 24 last year, Modi government had assured all help to migrant workers. However, almost no help reached them while they were locked in their homes. It compelled them to return to their homes, even on foot, walking up to thousands of miles, with no food, no water, and little hope of getting some in the locked down towns on the route. Hundreds lost their lives, but when question of compensation came up in the Parliament of India, Modi government said that they didn't have data. When migrant special trains were started, the workers had to suffer a lot, often going without food or water. Heart rending scenes such as an infant trying to wake up her mother lying dead on a railway platform continue to haunt them even now.
The trust deficit is such that when chief ministers and the Prime Minister say lockdowns are not necessary yet, migrant workers take the statements with a pinch of salt. What if a lockdown is suddenly announced as last year? The Prime Minister is in the habit of springing surprises and migrant workers do not seem to have much faith in his assurances any longer.
To win back the trust of migrant workers is clearly a herculean task. Mere lip service may no longer be enough. Some concrete steps are needed to encourage them to stay at their work places. In almost all the states, migrant workers suffer from prejudices harboured by local people. They also become victims of hostility because local people treat them as snatchers of their economic opportunity. In Maharashtra, they even blamed migrants for the spread of the second wave of COVID-19.
Access to healthcare facilities for migrant workers has always been ridden with numerous hurdles. In the last few years, health facilities have been increasingly linked to identity proof, address proof and documents. However, the problem with majority of migrant workers is that they are rarely supplied with documents. They work without documents from employers and therefore it is often difficult for them to prove their resident status. That is why they prefer to be at home for accessing health facilities at affordable cost. We therefore need to provide them healthcare facilities at their work places.
There must be a system in place to take care of their daily needs in case the second wave of Covid-19 necessitates lockdowns for longer periods. Relocking at present level has also impacted their earnings, and therefore we need to financially support them to ultimately support economic recovery in the country. We cannot dream of bringing back on track the derailed manufacturing and services, the demand and supply, the construction and consumption, and so on.
Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Delhi have been indicating the large scale return of the migrant labours. The government must do something now exclusively for migrant labour to make them comfortable at their places of work to prevent another crisis which would be worse than the country suffered during the first wave of Covid-19 outbreak. The present wave is more serious and hence require wiser decisions, including on labour rules. Workforce must have a feel that their government is with them and they will get help in times of need.
Views expressed are personal