In times of a lockdown, support migrant workers
It was during the Mumbai floods of July 26, 2005, that I first discovered how a city can be brought to its knees. Buses, trains, autos, taxis and all transportation that we take for granted, came to a grinding halt, as we waded through water for several kilometres to reach home. Between staying where we were and reaching home, the choice for most was easy — try and get home because you don’t know how much higher the water levels will rise up to.
The official 21-day lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) in India has, and will, trigger similar reactions for many migrant city dwellers. Except that they will be walking many more kilometres, in fear of an invisible virus and visible anti-migrant hostility, and without the solidarity of people on the streets to cheer them on. As news reports filter in, many are walking home, outside the city. Orders to stay home have mixed connotations for over 100-million circular migrant workers in India because “home” is usually the native place and getting there will be of utmost priority. With lack of clarity on income support, the figurative water levels are rising, and migrants will scramble to reach home as we did during the Mumbai floods.
As luck would have it, many millions, in northern India, would have gone home before the lockdown itself in the weeks surrounding Holi, as per the annual ritual. As authorities have clamped down on international travel, we can also rule out mass return migration from abroad. This is important since Punjab sends over 200,000 migrants to Italy, a country badly affected by Covid-19. The Indian government’s stellar efforts at rescuing stranded Indian travellers abroad should also be appreciated. And yet, the routine double-standards in treating international migrants better than internal migrants, is now on full display, as millions of migrant workers are stuck, given only a few hours of notice.
What can be done for our migrant workers, especially those with low incomes? First, state governments and district administrations need to show as much resolve as the national government in bringing back migrants should they want to do so. The Uttarakhand government appears to have taken the lead in this and other states, especially Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal must emulate this. Civil society organisations which are tracking this issue in real-time such as the Aaajevika Bureau, with decades of experience in dealing with migrant workers in source and destination regions, should be roped in.
Second, for those who cannot go back, welfare support measures need to be put in place immediately. This will ideally require an official call on cancellation of housing rent payments for one month and access to rations for non-domiciled people.
Third, for those migrants who have already gone home, social distancing has to be strictly enforced by district-level administrations. Since Maharashtra and Kerala have registered a number of Covid-19 cases so far, it would mean that the source-region districts of migrants to those places should be on high alert. Districts such as Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, Ganjam in Odisha, East and West Midnapore in West Bengal and a cluster of districts in the Bhojpuri-speaking belt should be prepared with more testing facilities.
A few decades ago, AIDS spread from Surat to Ganjam through migrant workers. A century ago, during the plague of 1896-98 or influenza of 1918, cities were emptied out as migrant workers fled. That perhaps contributed to a larger spread of the epidemic, though at times, the choice was between escaping the city or facing a famine in the countryside. This time around, there is no famine but with greater information, home may also not be as welcoming as Konkan migrants from Mumbai are finding out.
Trapped migrant workers need our empathy and support. The cruel irony is that when the lockdown is over, migrant workers will be expected to return as soon as possible, where they will work and live in congested sites and pick up all sorts of infections.
That is a public health issue that demands as much of our attention as Covid-19, after this pandemic has subsided.