Aside from the humdrum of politics, there is a dire need for governments — both at the Centre and the States — to focus greater attention on the plight of the thousands of migrant workers affected by the lockdowns in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. We are now into the third in the series of lockdowns in much of the country and there is no knowing whether this would be the last.
Indeed, the lockdowns represent a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density. The cold reality is that lacking jobs and money, and with public transportation shut down, these migrants bereft of jobs and security are forced to trek often hundreds of kilometres back to their home villages – with some dying on the journey. There is the tragic case of 16 of them being mowed down by a train in Aurangabad on Thursday on the rail tracks as they camped there on their way home. In the early stages of the first lockdown, alarmed by the spread of the pandemic, the Union Home Ministry had ordered States to intercept and quarantine the migrants for two weeks. At that point reports and images had emerged of police officers apparently beating people – including migrants – with batons, for breaking quarantine rules and spraying disinfectant on them.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had, while on a visit to India early last month pleaded for better treatment of these hapless people and had welcomed the Supreme Court directive to governments to treat them in a humane manner, including by providing them with enough food, water, beds and supplies as well as psycho-social counselling in shelters that are run by volunteers and not security forces. The recent action of the Karnataka government to stop the exodus of migrants to their home states because they were needed for reconstruction efforts in Karnataka was unfortunate and it is just as well that the order was withdrawn the very next day and these migrants were allowed to proceed. The states from which they originate, most notably Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, must find ways to engage them productively so that they are not forced to go hither thither in search of livelihood so far from their homes. But if that is not possible, they must be treated with dignity wherever they go.