Returning home, finally | HT Editorial
The government’s move is welcome, albeit much-delayedUpdated: Apr 30, 2020 19:56 IST
On Wednesday, the 36th day of the lockdown, the home ministry issued a set of guidelines to enable the movement of migrant workers, students, tourists, pilgrims and others stranded in different states to their home states. The government order stipulates that this can happen if there is a mutual agreement between the sending and receiving states; only those who show no symptoms after screening will be allowed to move; movement can only happen on road, in buses, while maintaining social distancing protocols; and those who return will either be in home or institutional quarantine, with periodic health check-ups.
The government’s order is welcome, though long overdue. Over the past five weeks, India has witnessed a looming humanitarian crisis. Migrant workers sought to return home from the time the lockdown was announced on March 24. Thousands walked or cycled home, hundreds of kilometres away. Facing a severe shortage of cash and food, they went through acute suffering. State governments did step in and arranged shelter camps, but this turned out to be inadequate. There was also an emerging law and order concern, as restless and angry migrants clashed with security personnel in cities such as Surat demanding they be allowed to go home. The central government’s dilemma was understandable — it was apprehensive that mass return of migrants could lead to the spread of the disease. But humanitarian and law and order concerns, and pressure from the ground, appear to have, finally, titled the decision.
The challenge is now in implementation. Reports suggest that there are 10 million migrants registered with different state governments who want to return home. Arranging transport will be a tremendous logistical challenge. The more important variable is maintaining the social distancing protocols during travel. Given that migrants are not going to be tested, but only screened, and many coronavirus disease patients are asymptomatic, there is a possibility that individuals with the disease may be travelling. This makes the requisite distancing, and then strict quarantine, and effective monitoring once they reach their destination essential. It was important to address the demands of migrants given the human tragedy that was unfolding. But India cannot afford to see the spread of the disease across the rural hinterland, where the health infrastructure is very weak. Getting this balance right will be critical in the weeks ahead.