The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced words and phrases that have now become deeply familiar to us: Corona, quarantine, thermal screening, tracing, testing, isolation, vaccination and, most prominently, “stranded migrant workers”.
At regular intervals, we have been witnessing heart-rending visuals of weary migrants painfully trudging along roads — people who have been compelled to set out on arduous journeys to reach their native villages, which they had once left for “greener pastures”. These migrant workers have been contributing towards the development of the nation by the sheer sweat of their brow, their labour, so that India could move towards the goal of becoming a trillion dollar economy.
The irony of fate is that when these very nation builders sought a little assistance from the country in their quest to reach their humble abodes, we failed to provide them food, shelter and conveyance.
The media has done no more than merely train the spotlight on their harrowing journeys. These are people who were crushed, mowed down and fated to die of exhaustion — from starvation really. This is a blot on humanity and an ignominy for the country. The glaring distinction between two Indias has palpably come to the fore.
In India, there is no dearth of hype and hyperbole. Swami Vivekananda had once said, “an ounce of practice is worth twenty-thousand tonnes of big talk”. The entire post-lockdown scenario vindicates the fact that the lockdown was a half-baked, knee-jerk exercise that has resulted in an unprecedented human disaster on a scale unseen since Independence. This could have been averted had there been a well-thought out plan in anticipation of the magnitude of this looming corona menace. Can we ignore the fact that if these migrants do not return to their workplaces after the lifting of the lockdown, several critical economic activities will take a hit? The structure of our economic activities has evolved in such a manner that migrants — from within or outside their respective state — have an integral role to play.
The question is whether the government has comprehensive data about the migrant workers of our country. It appears that the government is emerging from a stupor and groping in the dark about the status and significance of the migrants.
On the one hand, these workers have lost their livelihoods abruptly. Their hard-earned money — otherwise remitted to their homes to cater to the needs of their families, and means of survival for themselves — was wiped out instantly. Now, shorn of everything, these migrants have been mobilising the cost of their return journeys home by selling their family valuables. The stringent lockdown is like a double-edged sword for them: Their sources of income have dried up, and the little resources back home are not sufficient to help them withstand the hardship of the situation. It appears to me that the “medicine” to counter coronavirus has, in our case, become more deadly than the virus itself.
The lockdown has forced us to think specifically about migrants, whether they are skilled or unskilled workers, blue-collar workers or white-collar workers. All migrants face difficulties. Appropriate facilities should thus be created at all places to address their problems. There is a need to match demand and supply for their skills, and the employers have to be sensitive enough to create required facilities for them. Hence, a law is needed to deal with any adversities that the migrant workers may confront in future in a holistic manner. Migrant workers must be able to believe that this is a country for all, without any discrimination. They do not require mercy, they should be allowed to live with dignity.
The current crisis also makes us think about the need to have a separate ministry for migrant affairs, dealing with domestic migrants only. The UPA government was innovative enough to create the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs to give proper attention to the various issues faced by Indian expatriates. It helped to ameliorate the conditions of Indians working abroad to some extent. Likewise, we must pay attention to domestic migrants. A dedicated ministry for migrants affairs will have the complete database of the migrants — their place of origin, the place they have moved to, skills they possess, etc. This information can be leveraged to plan our cities, towns and train movements better. This can help in generating appropriate employment, besides ensuring traceability and helping to organise their housing, transport and food in times of crisis. This ministry can coordinate with the respective states about the migrants. Across the world, migrants keep moving in search of better economic options. Therefore, we may also study how other countries have fared on this front.
The focus of the UPA has always been the poor and the downtrodden — how to transform their lives and raise their standards of living, thus pulling them out of penury and insecurity. As we have been reading about the plight of the migrants during the lockdown, it has prompted us to think more about them. We have realised that in order to better focus on their affairs, in all situations and all times, it is best to have a separate ministry of migrants affairs.
We should also bear in mind that the lockdown has been promulgated under the disaster management act of 2005, which was conceptualised by the UPA in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 22, 2020 under the title ‘A ministry for migrant labour’. The writer is leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha.