The public health challenge of confronting the novel coronavirus has triggered a terrible humanitarian crisis in the country. Amongst the defining images of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the virus — arguably the most stringent in the world, and announced at short notice — are those of migrant workers walking back home on the country’s highways, carrying their children, and at times elderly family members, on their shoulders and in their arms. There have been reports of many workers collapsing by the wayside, weakened by hunger and fatigue. Sixteen more names were added on Friday to the lengthening toll — of migrants run over by a freight train in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, after they, in exhaustion, fell asleep on the tracks, on the way to their homes. The livelihoods of these workers had dried up after the iron factory in Jalna, which employed them, had pulled down its shutters because of the lockdown. The workers were trekking to Bhusawal, about 150-km away, to catch a Shramik Special train to return to their homes in Madhya Pradesh.
There is little doubt that the migrant workers are essential and indispensable for the wheels of the country’s economy to turn. They help run factories, build roads and houses, harvest crops, collect garbage and pull rickshaws. But it’s a measure of their invisibility that there is very little official data on their exact numbers — according to the Economic Survey, 2017, nine million people migrate across states every year, but other studies suggest that this could be a conservative estimate. There is a growing body of literature on the multiple deprivations and injustices they must bear. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of 2017-18, for instance, more than 70 per cent of the workers in the non-agricultural sector with a regular salary — most of them migrants — didn’t have a written job contract, about 55 per cent were not eligible for paid leave and, 50 per cent did not have any social security benefits. Any breakdown of economic activity, such as that caused by the pandemic, leaves these workers to fend for themselves.
The public health challenge posed by the novel coronavirus has led to some meaningful conversations on improving the country’s healthcare facilities. It should also occasion discussions on putting in place social security nets for the migrant workers. After the pandemic, these workers cannot go back to the ill-lit shadows of the economy that they have been forced to occupy for so long.
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