The Karnataka government has done well to roll back its order of May 5, canceling trains that would have ferried migrants back to their home states. Thousands of migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tripura, Manipur, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal were reportedly left in the lurch by the decision. In a series of tweets, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa had cited economic reasons for withdrawing the trains: “Barring the red zones, business, construction work and industrial activities have to be resumed. In this context. unnecessary travel of the migrant workers has to be controlled”. The decision had rightly provoked widespread outrage and the state government was called out for denying the migrants, already driven to the wall, the right to choose.
Pandemics are cruel not just because of the toll they take on the health of people but also because of the social and economic disruptions they cause, the anxieties they breed. The urgency of the cash-strapped states — and industry — to get workers back to factory floors and construction sites cannot be overstated. Yet it is also evident that the relaxation of the lockdown hasn’t assuaged the fears of workers at most places, including in Karnataka. Migrant workers, who live precariously even in the best of the times, have concerns about getting work on a sustained basis even after economic activities resume and, with no safety nets in place, many prefer to return home. An empathetic attitude towards such anxieties and respect for workers’ dignity and safety should inform all plans to resume industrial activities after the lockdown. States — and industry — might well take a leaf out of the Punjab book, where many seats on the trains carrying back migrants are reportedly empty, apparently because efforts to reach out to migrants and persuade them by government and factory owners have been successful. That several industrial units have put in place safeguards for the employees who have reported back to work after the relaxation of the lockdown may also have contributed to this development.
To its credit, Karnataka has put in place a post-lockdown revival roadmap. An economic package, announced on Wednesday, recognises the importance of the MSME sector, agriculturists and horticulturists, and informal sector workers. It provides financial assistance to the self-employed such as weavers, autorickshaw and taxi drivers, and barbers. The Karnataka government has also set up a board to deal with issues related to wages and retrenchment of workers, many of whom are migrants. Yet if, despite all incentives, the migrants still want to go back home, the state, and industry, must respect their choice.