More than a month after the nationwide lockdown dried up the sources of livelihood for migrant workers in different parts of the country, the Union Home Ministry has passed an order allowing the inter-state movement of these workers. By all accounts, most of them have spent the past five weeks in overcrowded shelters arranged by state governments, civil society groups or employers. The decision to allow them to return home, though belated, is welcome. The Centre has also done well to direct states to ensure that the homecoming of the workers happens in controlled conditions: “Only asymptomatic people will be allowed to travel, and a second assessment of their health will be conducted after they arrive at their home states”. States have been asked to develop protocols for receiving and sending stranded persons. The onus is now on them to draw plans to facilitate their safe return.
A majority of the migrant workers hail from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. These states have a varying COVID-19 burden. Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have more than 2,000 cases while the states in the east have a comparatively low incidence of the disease, though, as a report in this paper shows, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand are showing signs of becoming potential hotspots. The return of migrants could pose more challenges to these states. But that is a responsibility for the respective governments to address — not a burden to be shouldered by the returning workers alone. The local authorities must reach out to the migrants to conduct periodic assessments of their health — as required by the home ministry’s guidelines — and the state governments must be ready with quarantine facilities where, if required, they can be isolated in a dignified manner. The humanitarian case for these measures is evident. But, as former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian underlined at an e-adda organised by this paper on Tuesday, there is also economic sense in facilitating the exit of workers. Migrant workers will return to work only when they are assured that, in times of crisis, they can go back easily and safely to the sanctuary of their villages.
The Covid-19 pandemic has bared the precarious existence of at least a 100-million people, many of them migrants, who work in factories, build roads and houses, pull rickshaws and operate the informal economy. They live in squalor in shanties — even on pavements of the cities they serve — without regular supplies of potable water and electricity. Many of them do not have proof of domicile in the places they work, cannot get a ration card and thus remain out of the ambit of the public distribution system. In rural India, the MGNREGA, the PM Kisan Yojana and crop insurance schemes provide a semblance of relief during distress. But in cities migrant workers do not have even this modicum of social security. Without social safety nets for such workers, the wheels of the economy could stop turning. That’s one important lesson of this pandemic.
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