On Friday, this newspaper carried a photograph of a woman breaking down at Howrah railway station because she had missed out on the food being distributed to migrant workers. On the same day, a report spoke of the travails of 12 construction workers in Uttarakhand who had to walk more than 200 km to reach their home in UP’s Saharanpur district. They could get only one proper meal in more than 60 hours. Countless such heart-rending stories have come to light ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked all Indians to stay at home to check the spread of the novel coronavirus. The closure of all but essential services as a result of the lockdown, which began on March 25, has dried up sources of livelihood of workers in the country’s informal sector, many of them migrants. It’s clear that along with addressing the public health challenge, the country will have to find ways to alleviate the mounting distress of rickshaw pullers, construction workers, those working at small roadside eateries, and other daily wagers, including and especially those who are migrants.
On Thursday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a Rs 1.7-lakh crore package to alleviate the economic hardship caused by the pandemic. It aims to ensure food supplies and ease the cash woes of the most vulnerable sections — it comprises an increase in wages as part of the MGNREGA, raising of loan limits for women SHGs and ex-gratia payments to widows and pensioners. These measures have been rightly criticised as inadequate. They also seem insensitive to the plight of the migrant workers. Routing relief through the MGNREGA, for instance, might benefit people in the informal sector only after they reach their villages, and that too, only if there is work to be done. The package for SHGs will not reduce the stress of migrant women workers who are stranded far from their villages.
On Thursday, the Centre asked the state governments to arrange food and shelter for migrant workers. Much more will need to be done. States along India’s migration corridors need to step up cooperation and have regular conversations on ways to set up helplines to reach out to people whose livelihoods have been devastated as a result of the country’s fight against COVID-19. Dealing with the socio-economic and epidemiological aspects of the coronavirus pandemic will require extensive coordination between the Centre and the states — akin to that seen, in the last three years, at the GST Council. They should come together to devise a mechanism for this purpose.