Next 24 hours are crucial for the migrant workers. States must act now | Opinion
Lockdown: States should ensure that a cohesive and coherent strategy both within each state, with adjoining states, and the Centre is formulated to prevent the greatest disaster of our timesUpdated: Mar 30, 2020 08:12 IST
A human tragedy of untold magnitude is unfolding before our eyes, bringing back painful memories of Partition. Covid-19 and the lockdown by the central and the state governments has led to one of the greatest migrations in human history. In an attempt to stem the spread of this deadly contagion, the curfew and the lockdown across the nation has thrown up a new set of real and potential victims.
Daily wagers and migrant labour are bearing the brunt of the shutdown in ways that we, sitting in comfort, cannot even fathom. With the countrywide curfew and the attendant stoppage of all forms of public transport, this multitude of daily wagers and itinerant labour along with their families have taken to the highways, risking a desperate trek covering hundreds of miles – without the means to reach their villages. News pours in of their tribulations, of hungry children and of some succumbing to death due to exhaustion.
For the below poverty line population, the struggle is for daily food and shelter. Today, it is their desperate desire to return to their homes, having been abandoned by employers who have shutdown operations, and by landlords who have perhaps coerced them to vacate.
Their hope is that in their distant villages they would have access to food, shelter and survival. With the shutdown and sealing of state and district borders, they are now trapped in a no-man’s land, in their own country.
When the Prime Minister in his first speech requested the private sector to be generous to its employees and ensure payment of salaries, it was perhaps hoped that the social and economic impact of this lockdown would be contained. But for that, the states had to plan and act in collaboration with each other and for the Centre to coordinate with the states to ensure containment and care of this vast segment of Indians. Containment by police alone is not the solution.
Saturday’ scenes at Anand Vihar ISBT at Delhi, showed a fraction of numbers on the move. The tragedy that may unfold if such movement of people is not contained in time by the State Governments reaching out with food, aid and shelter, may be of far greater proportions. It is a given that this mass migration may, and will result in transmission of the infection to villages, where medical facilities are scant and mostly absent.
While there has been sporadic action by some state governments in easing food supplies and opening government buildings to the population on the move, each state administration must ensure food, shelter, medical care and safety to the scared populace. The state governments (who it is believed were on board prior to the lockdown), especially those which export interstate migrant labour ought to have not limited themselves to the clampdown, but should have thought ahead of this anticipated mass movement of people.
Under Schedule VII of the Indian Constitution, public health, sanitation, public transportation, relief to disabled and unemployed, markets, production supply and distribution of food, water supplies are all matters within the jurisdiction of the state governments. In the past few days we have seen mainly NGOs, individuals and private institutions reach out to local authorities to provide essential food and care to the poor.
Today, there is no place in India which is not impacted by the consequences of the shutdown. It is imperative for the states therefore to ensure that a cohesive and coherent strategy both within each state, with adjoining states and with the Centre is formulated within next 12 – 24 hours to prevent the greatest disaster of our times. It is not to say that the state governments are bereft of experience. Large scale movement of kanwariyas (pilgrims) traversing Rajasthan, UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Delhi on foot, with tents along highways to provide food, toilets, water and resting places, and vehicles patrolling at roads to pick up the sick and infirm is one example of state action. Kumbh melas are another such example.
With public transport buses no longer plying or reduced services, there is idle capacity which is available for emergency services. There are empty schools and colleges and other buildings which can be converted into camps providing shelter and access to toilets. The lockdown has also resulted in supply chains being disrupted hindering the movement of food, medical supplies and essential life saving equipment. Trucks and goods carriers are said to be parked at State borders awaiting clearance to move.
The next 24 hours are crucial, and if the state administrations don’t act now by providing assurance, food, water, toilets, shelter to these now homeless migrants, the human cost will be immense and posterity will never forgive our generation. With all the resources at their command, it is the imperative need of the hour for state governments to act and for the Centre to coordinate and to work cohesively to ensure that lives are not lost to starvation and diseases in 2020, while we battle Covid-19.
Just as the manner of Partition was termed among the “follies of empire” by the scholar Yasmin Khan, we can only hope that this lockdown, which started as an essential life saving measure, should not be termed the “Folly of 2020”.
(Sidharth Luthra is former Additional Solicitor General of India, and Ketaki Goswami is a lawyer)