The plight of migrant workers stranded in shelter homes across the country — several questions about their health and livelihood — was a key issue raised by many state governments Saturday in the third meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and their Chief Ministers. COVID-19 LIVE updates
While there was a broad consensus on extending the lockdown to counter the Covid-19 outbreak, this issue saw different opinions. Some states pushed for the migrants to be allowed to travel back to their home states amid apprehension of social unrest — there was violence in Surat Friday by workers asking a passage home. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sources said, indicated that their return was not feasible at this stage given its public health implications.
Modi’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown on March 24, two days after a one-day Janata Curfew on March 22, had set off a frantic exodus of migrant workers from cities all across India attempting to reach home without means of public transport.
They walked, some hitched rides, many scrambled to board buses hastily organised by local governments. Since then, many are stuck in states without work or pay. Borders have been sealed, provisions are coming from the government with strained NGOs chipping in.
Earlier this week, the Centre, in its affidavit to the Supreme Court, said that there were as many as 22,567 and 3,909 shelters run by the government and NGOs respectively catering to a total of over 10.36 lakh stranded people. This is besides the close to 74 lakh people provided for in food camps and 15 lakh getting food and shelter in the premises of the industry or factory employing them.
Sources said Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray made a forceful plea for arrangements to help stranded migrant workers travel home. He said, it is learnt, that it was the responsibility of the state to arrange for their safety. Sources said Thackeray said: “How long are industries going to keep migrant workers there..hen the lockdown is extended. Industries do not have the capacity to provide shelter. Moreover, migrant workers want to go to their home states. So is any provision being made?”
States like Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, too, suggested that people from their states stranded elsewhere be brought back or there could be “problems.” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that if the situation wasn’t addressed, serious social unrest could take place and so the government must have a plan in place. He suggested that the government look at non-stop special trains that would take them straight to their home states. The Jammu and Kashmir administration added that if this was done, workers should be tested before they are moved.
Not all states were on the same page, though. Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren called it a Catch-22 and said returning workers could bring the risk of infection. He left it to the discretion of the Centre and red-flagged possible “law-and-order issues,” if workers return amid the pandemic. This would necessitate the deployment of police or even the Army, he is learnt to have said.
Soren said that, on an average, while those who returned from cities earned as much as Rs 500 a day, the daily wage under MNREGA in Jharkhand has been fixed at just over Rs 200 a day. “This is the lowest in the entire country…I have written to the Union Minister to give the state unemployment allowance under MNREGA as many people with active job cards haven’t been able to get jobs because of the need for social distancing.”
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh raised the issue of those from the North-East being stranded all over the country and asked Chief Ministers to take care of them. Sources said that the Prime Minister told the CMs that those from the N-E and from Jammu and Kashmir be protected and treated with sensitivity.
(Inputs from Abhishek Angad)