Utilise the army, paramilitary to tackle the migrant workers’ crisis
On Thursday, 16 migrant workers were crushed by a train in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. They were sleeping on the rail tracks after a long journey on foot in a desperate attempt to get back to their home towns hundreds of kilometres away in Madhya Pradesh. While the government has failed to make adequate arrangements for migrant workers, who power our economy, aircraft are being arranged for those coming from abroad.
It is not just a matter of emotion that migrants want to get home, though that should be enough. It is not just a matter of their right to move about within their own country, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to ensure public healths. The idea should have been to maximise their mobility while minimising restrictions. It is a matter of their survival. Sadly, the Supreme Court and high courts are silent. They could have asked the central government to operationalise the return of the migrants from their host states to home states on these simple principles.
But they have not.
The impact is there for all to see. Every day, there are stories of migrant workers and their families, bereft of food and money, making desperate attempts to reach their homes. How many must have gone to an early grave not because of Covid-19 but because of callousness and disorganisation of the State?
People act on common sense. The migrants in Surat, Bandra, Noida, and Karnataka know their families will starve and they will be prey to predators if they don’t return to safety or to look after those they have left behind. They had left all that was familiar and loved for a better life. Now they are opting for a life of subsistence among their own rather than with strangers in cities who have used them and then let them go.
It is now six weeks into a lengthening national lockdown, albeit with some easing of restrictions. The most visible presence of the armed forces has been to shower petals on hospitals and engage in fly pasts from north to south and east to west.
The Indian Army does many laudable things. There were reports that in the early days of the lockdown it contributed medical equipment and manpower. The Army has the mandate to come to the aid of the civilian authority whenever there is a national need. It is stationed everywhere across the country; it has tents, rations, and water supplies. It has transport vehicles to move people and food. Its men and resources are available at a very short distance from all arterial roads and highways used by the poor workers. It has managerial capabilities and an organised and disciplined force to move into action at a moment’s notice.
None of the assistance they can offer would reduce their operational capabilities. If the risk of infection is a concern, the State can put in place adequate precautionary measures that do not hinder the work but minimise the risk. The Army knows how to minimise casualties. Even now, food water and resting halts can be arranged at regular distances as can isolation camps en route. The workers will understand if they are tested to see if they can go on or must rest in a quarantine area along the way. They will submit to quarantines where needed, if only they know that eventually they will be assisted to get home.
It’s been six weeks. People are still walking. People are still thirsty. People are near starving. These are not ordinary people; they have built the country. They will build the country in the future. No favour is being done to them by providing them assistance to get to where they feel they belong. There is still time to save lives and win back trust. Galvanising the Army or even the paramilitary to assist these long marches will transform the everyday images of sorrow into those of joyful reunion. This is the right thing to do.
Maja Daruwala is former director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The views expressed are personal