More than a month after the national lockdown was imposed, migrant labourers across the country are beginning to board the Shramik Special trains to return to their homes. While the decision to allow special trains to ensure their safe passage home is indeed welcome, asking the migrants — many have lost their jobs and don’t have the cushion to stay on in the city — to bear the cost of their evacuation during this period of acute financial distress is both unfair and short-sighted. Both the Centre and state governments have repeatedly stressed on the need to alleviate the distress of the labourers. Yet they also vacillate over who will bear the cost. This indecision could — and should — have been avoided. Fears that “free” rides might be taken advantage of are misplaced as only those who are desperate are travelling in these times and there is strict screening and vetting of passenger lists. A ticket should neither be seen as a charity nor freebie, the state governments must bear the costs.
The migrant labourers’ decision to go back home was, in crucial senses, imposed on them by factors beyond their control. With revenue plummeting during the national lockdown, cash-strapped businesses, especially the small and medium enterprises in the informal sector, are unable to pay wages. For daily wage earners with non-existent safety nets, a sudden drop in incomes can push them back into poverty. And this further prods them to seek the security of their homes. There is also the pull factor. With India’s villages relatively spared the debilitating effects of the coronavirus — the virus hotspots are largely concentrated in urban centres — there is an added safety in villages for this section of the labour force with limited access to health services. Thus, in the absence of a social security architecture that provides relief for loss of incomes, and ensures access to health services, the lure of home is entirely understandable and predictable.
At the same time, it is also true that the unplanned and forced exit of the migrant workforce puts a question mark over its re-entry, so necessary for the wheels of the urban, industrial economy to keep turning. Migrants are likely to re-enter the city only if their safe exit from it is assured, and in the absence of such guarantees, they may even fall off the labour map — they may be constrained to opt out of the urban labour force. How this reverse migration plays out will be visible only when economic activity gathers momentum. For now, there is a strong economic argument, therefore, for state governments to bear the costs of their exit — in order to facilitate their re-entry and help them reach a safer place. The costs incurred now are not only for alleviating the humanitarian distress of those most vulnerable in a public health emergency, they are a crucial investment in a shared economic future.