Lessons from Bihar on the migrant worker crisis, writes Sanjay Jha
For those outside, give direct income support. For those who have returned, take precautions, provide employmentUpdated: Apr 28, 2020 18:39 IST
At the interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, Bihar’s chief minister (CM) Nitish Kumar raised the issue of migrant workers and protocols related to their movement. The extended lockdown has firmly brought the spotlight on these workers, with Bihar among the most severely affected states, as millions from the states remain stranded.
Amid hunger, monetary crisis and uncertainty, migrant workers have been treated as outsiders, which is why many set off on foot to their homes. Reports of the exodus of migrant workers from Delhi and other cities were proof of their alienation. With widespread panic, migrants became easy targets on social media and were labelled coronavirus carriers.
Frantic efforts by Bihar — home to India’s second-largest migrant labour population — to address the exodus including localised containment measures at the state borders, were not nearly enough to counter this stigma. In many places, the enforcement of lockdown through the use of police force, as well as several infection control measures such as stamping those identified for isolation and /or quarantine, made things worse for them. It was only when the Supreme Court intervened to dispel this prejudice that the media and governance responses changed to some degree.
As states begin devising measures to bring workers back to assembly lines, they could take a leaf out of Bihar’s book on how to reach out to migrant workers and treat them in a humane manner. This model is already being replicated by Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand to reach out to workers stuck in other states.
Bihar was the first state to respond to the needs of its migrant workers stranded in other states. CM Nitish Kumar first ensured that people who reached out to the state government in the early days of the lockdown were called back, so that the government could sort out their problems. Their deprivation related to their lack of money and assured food. In one of his first directives immediately after allocating Rs 150 crore from the CM Relief Fund to fight the pandemic (this has now been increased to Rs 250 crore), the CM instructed senior officials on April 2 to remit Rs 1,000 directly to the bank accounts of Bihari workers stranded outside.By April 6, the department of disaster management (DMD) not just developed and tested a dedicated software app for this, but successfully accomplished the transfer of funds to individual bank accounts, while launching helplines for people to continue reaching out to the state government.
The enormity of the task might seem daunting, but it is nothing new for the state machinery that has extended monetary relief to the vulnerable in the past. This was, however, the first time that migrants living outside Bihar were identified, verified, and reached. The state government, by April 27, had transferred Rs 1,000 through direct bank transfers (DBT) to over 1.6 million accounts of non-resident Biharis.
Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh stand out prominently in this DBT scheme list.
The state government set up helpline numbers for people stranded outside, erected relief centres at state borders for homebound migrant workers, set up community quarantine centres in villages and panchayats, and ensured that local employment through government schemes absorbed as many returning migrants as possible. Even before the partial easing of the lockdown from April 20, the state government directed all departments to use the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to provide employment for the local labourers.
Outside the state, the DMD and the Bihar Foundation have been running 52 relief centres in 12 cities in different states to provide cooked food and food packets. Over 20,000 people are being provided with meals every day at the 12 centres in Delhi alone. Similarly, the 24*7, 60-line state helpline responded to over a 100,000 calls, facilitating affirmative action for 2.5 million individuals, mostly pertaining to monetary and food issues.
Beyond financial assistance through DBT and support through community centres and phone helplines, the state’s initiatives have succeeded in looping hundreds of thousands of migrant workers into an extended community.
This is a challenging time for both, the state government as well as for migrant workers. But taking care of them, through protective mechanisms, while remaining careful that the disease does not spread, is both the ethical and pragmatic thing to do. After all, it is these workers who will have to steer the economy back to its feet when India opens up.