Policemen punish offenders, seated in marked circles to maintain social distancing, who violated the lockdown guidelines by venturing out of their homes unnecessarily during the 21-day complete lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
Policemen punish offenders, seated in marked circles to maintain social distancing, who violated the lockdown guidelines by venturing out of their homes unnecessarily during the 21-day complete lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
Photo: PTI

There is some merit in the criticism that the sudden enforcement of the 21-day lockdown did not fully consider the plight of the lakhs of migrant labour.

The authorities might have expected them to stay wherever they were when a total ban on human movement was imposed and all means of local and inter-state transport were ordered shut. With all industrial, commercial and business activity at a standstill, lakhs of workers found themselves stranded without income and even food in some cases.

Aggravating the problem was the inhuman attitude of their employers and landlords who refused to make due concession for the extraordinary circumstances which had forced the closure of more than three-fourths the national economy.

As a result, the heart-rending sight of migrant workers with their meagre belongings tied in small bundles trudging along highways to return to their villages has generated an outpouring of sympathy and concern across the country. It is a humanitarian problem. The point that a lead time of a couple of days ought to have been provided before the enforcement of the country-wide lock-down seems valid. Though, to be fair, the authorities might have decided against it for fear of causing a nationwide run on stores selling essential commodities. Anyway, the challenge now is to ensure that the travails of the tens of thousands of migrant workers are minimised in the best way possible. On Saturday, the Centre asked the States to set up camps to provide shelter, food etc. to migrants who have been uprooted from their places of work following the lock-down. An allocation of Rs 29,000 crores from the Disaster Relief Fund has been made for the purpose. The problem is that even if the States are able to hurriedly create these camps, a good chunk of migrants already headed for their village homes would not return. For instance, the national capital’s borders with UP and Haryana were chock-full with migrants walking homewards. A substantial chunk neither had money for food nor for transport, which, in any case, was not available. UP Government on Saturday, meanwhile, made a provision for ferrying these migrants to their villages on 1,000 buses.

The threat is that if some of these people carry the coronavirus with them, the spread of the epidemic in the rural areas will be very hard to contain. The whole objective behind the lockdown was to prevent the community spread, a phase in the journey of the virus which India is set to enter in the next couple of days. Allowing the migrants to return to their villages in UP, Rajasthan, MP, Bihar, etc., can be very risky and should be avoided at all costs. Therefore, it is the bounden duty of respective state governments to house the migrants in their respective jurisdictions in special camps under humanitarian conditions but isolated from other people. No one should ignore the humanitarian aspect of the migrant problem, but it will be totally wrong to let them go back to their villages. Meanwhile, testing has picked up in some places but continues to be far less than desirable. It is so for want of testing kits. The same shortages confront the US, the UK and other major western nations.

Apparently, a Pune-based lab has been licensed to manufacture testing kits but it would need at least a week to start production. To the utter amazement of foreign observers, India still has managed to keep the number of infected people under check — less than a thousand on Saturday with Maharashtra topping the list with maximum cases and Kerala following closely behind at the second place. So far nineteen deaths were recorded due to COVID-19. The Prime Minister has also appealed to the people to contribute to a special fund for dealing with COVID-19 and other such mega epidemics in the future.

Displaying his fondness for easy-to-remember acronyms, the new fund is to be called PM – CARES, the latter standing for Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations, a rather awkward choice of words for a simple task. Without doubt, the Government has been on its toes dealing with the invisible devil menacing the humankind, but even the most powerful of nations are struggling to cope with the challenge. Thus far, we seem to have done well. And hope that the community transmission stage of the virus will not spell a bigger misery. While we prepare ourselves fully to meet the challenge, it is the responsibility of every Indian to keep

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