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In painful tales of lockdown and return of migrants, some hard lessons learnt

The UP government launched a massive exercise of establishing contact with the returnee migrant workers. They were initially kept at shelter homes for 14 days before being allowed to go home.

Written by Asad Rehman | Lucknow | December 31, 2020 8:52:10 am
Migrants return to Lucknow from New Delhi during the lockdown imposed due to Covid-19 in March. (Express Photo: Vishal Sriastav)

It began as a trickle. A few photographs of daily wage migrant workers returning to their villages in Uttar Pradesh on foot from urban NCR surfaced just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24 to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. As the entire nation – from Capital Delhi to a remote Chhattisgarh town – hunkered down and work started drying up in the big cities, migrant workers were left with no choice but to reach to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar.

Suddenly, the country was witnessing one of its biggest human displacements. With train and bus services stopped, thousands of migrants workers took to the highways – most on foot, some in their rickshaws or cycle, many on the roofs of trucks.

On route there were tragedies. Between the last week of March and June, several accidents were reported. On May 16, two trucks carrying migrant workers from Rajasthan, Delhi and Ghaziabad collided on NH-24 in Auraiya in Uttar Pradesh, leaving 26 people dead.

With a large number of migrants flocking to Uttar Pradesh, the state government began arrangements for their safe return. Also, with migrants returning from cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which had a large number of Covid cases, it was likely that their return could lead to spread of infection in the rural areas of the state.

Looking Forward

Officials for migrants

Last week, the UP government said it would appoint officials in cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai to ensure “safety, security and welfare” of migrant workers from the state. To begin with, two officers will be posted in Mumbai who will oversee facilities provided to the migrant workers by the employers. In other places, the UP Finance Corporation has been asked to oversee it. In May, Chief Minister Adityanath had said that states seeking to employ migrant workers from UP will need to take his government’s nod.

Opportunity Seized

The UP government launched a massive exercise of establishing contact with the returnee migrant workers. They were initially kept at shelter homes for 14 days before being allowed to go home.

With the government streamlining their return by running special trains from places where migrants worked such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab, Rajasthan and Kerala, it gave the officials the opportunity to make a database of migrant labourers and their skills.

The UP government announced it would provide them jobs and improve their skills so that they could get gainful employment.

According to a government estimate, around 55 lakh migrant workers returned to Uttar Pradesh from different parts of the country during the lockdown. While around 47 lakh migrant workers got themselves registered on their return, another 7-8 lakh returnees did not.

On May 24, the government announced a commission — Kamgar/Shramik (Sewayojan evam Rozgar) Kalyan Aayog – for the purpose of giving them jobs by creating a database of their skill sets.

On completing the skill-mapping of 16 lakh migrants, the Commission found that the largest chunk was people who could work in real estate sector (1.5 lakh), followed by furniture technicians (26,989), building decorators (26,041), home decorators (12,633), drivers (10,000), IT and Electronic technicians (4,680), home appliance technicians (5,884), automobile technicians (1,558), paramedical and pharmaceuticals workers (596), dressmakers (12,103), beauticians (1,274), handicraft and carpets makers (1,284) and security guards (3,364).

The government announced several schemes to employ them. MNREGA scheme, however, proved to be the biggest employer. According to the government’s record, daily employment in MNREGA recently reached a peak of about 57 lakh workers post-lockdown.

However, with the easing of the lockdown in subsequent months, many migrant workers began returning to the cities for better wages. “There was no work in the village, so I had to come back to Mumbai. Now, I work at a shirt manufacturing unit here and make Rs 500-600 per day. I, however, wanted to stay in the village and work so that I could be with my wife and parents,” 25-year-old Ravi Maurya told The Indian Express from Mumbai.

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