Narmada Bachao Andolan’s Medha Patkar, who sat on a fast last month demanding immediate transportation for migrant workers, speaks to The Indian Express about Maharashtra’s response to the exodus.
How has Maharashtra responded to the migrant crisis?
It is very clear that the Centre and the state did not foresee this impending crisis. There was no planning to tackle this issue. The planning during the first two phases of the lockdown was abject. Even when inter-state movement was allowed for stranded migrant labourers, there was no coordination between states. However, we have found that the willingness of the Maharashtra government to cooperate and listen is much better than other states. The administration is flexible and responsive when it comes to dealing with migrants and this needs to continue. The state administration, however, needs to go beyond ensuring that migrants reach home. A very large section of the society, which is vulnerable, needs help. The state needs to go beyond what it is currently doing to help them.
What are the biggest issues faced by the workers and how has the state addressed these needs?
Everywhere, migrants are facing the same problem – ration, wetan and parivahan (ration, wages and transportation). People are helping out with food but we had demanded that the public distribution system be universalised. Most migrants workers do not have ration cards and can’t benefit from the PDS. It is rather unfortunate that this has not happened.
People who are living above the poverty line are getting some benefit but almost nothing is being done at the administrative level for those below the poverty line. Article 47 of Constitution directs the state to raise the level of nutrition. However, not much work has been done on this.
The Centre has recently asked the states to provide food for migrants. But that entire expenditure has been passed on to the states, which are facing a big financial crunch. This is why they are so desperate to open liqour vends. Had it not been for social organisations that have come forward in large numbers – as they always do in our country during national calamities – things would have been far worse and a lot of people would have died.
Why has it been so difficult for the state to identify and reach out to migrant workers?
They may form a major chunk of your workforce but these people are not in the records of any system, in spite of laws making it mandatory for them to be registered. One of the primary legislations on workers employed outside their state is the Interstate Migrant Workers Act, 1979, which has a provision for mandatory registration of every inter-state migrant worker, both in their home and host states through the contractors employing them. The Act also provides for displacement and journey allowances to be paid to the workers by the primary employers. It is a very good Act that assures these workers medical and other facilities.
However, the people who are hiring them are not getting them registered. There is almost no record of the people who constitute the majority of your workforce, on whom the edifice of the country’s economy is built. The states have no records. There have also been instances where many of these people have not been paid.
What does the state need to do now to help the migrants?
Work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act should be started on an urgent basis in rural areas. As of now, there are only feeble attempts to provide work. Cash doles are also the need of the hour. When you start amending labour laws, it makes the poor more vulnerable.
The policies of the Centre also smack of inequality, where you are comfortable with starting flight services for a section of the society but do not want to resume train services. Train services should be augmented at a far greater rate. Asking people to travel by road means putting their lives at risk and also leads to environmental pollution. Of all carbon emissions, 70 per cent are due to road transport. Trains are far safer for migrants. Moreover, the state needs to build faith in its people so that this exodus stops.
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