Coronavirus in India: Don't expect migrant woes to end anytime soon, warn experts

Lucknow: After almost 40 days of lockdown, the Union and the State governments have finally agreed to ply special trains and buses to ferry the interstate migrant workers back home last week. A few trains and buses from Maharashtra have already reached Uttar Pradesh easing out a few thousand migrants.

Others are still running from pillar to post to submit applications and obtain medical certificate that proves that they don’t have symptoms of the novel coronavirus – something that is mandatory to get passage.

Maharashtra has about 25-30 lakh migrant workers largely from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Odisha. Centred mostly around the Mumbai and Pune metro regions, they worked in the construction sector, jewellery, leather, textile and other industries as daily or contractual wagers till the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown on 25th March.

Since then, neither UP nor Maharashtra has got complete list of migrants to facilitate the process. Most districts are still collecting records of the stranded passengers, admits Nawab Malik. Distressed people will have to wait for a few more weeks to reach native place.

“Identifying and sending them to different destinations would be a daunting task. Instead of forcing 10-12 people to stay in a small room without water, toilet or food, the government should have allowed them to leave in March itself”, says Sanjay Nirupam, former Member of Parliament from Mumbai.

Abdul Shaban, Social scientist and Professor of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, says, “Had a week’s window been given to the workers initially when covid19 cases in Mumbai and Maharashtra were low, the chances of contracting the virus by the workers would have been far less.”

Ardent journey on foot

Anticipating uncertainty and mess, scores of workers from Maharashtra had already left for their hometowns in Uttar Pradesh on foot, walking down 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres with kids and bags on their shoulders. Some boarded trucks, tankers, cement mixers. Some cycled. Few were caught by authorities in the middle and quarantined. Many died on their way due to exhaustion or accidents.

Brajesh Mishra, Editor-in-Chief, Bharat Samachar TV, says, “The beelines of workers can still be seen walking across Uttar Pradesh. A huge chunk of them have reached Jhansi, Mahoba, Prayagraj. The UP government doesn’t have any record of these people; they haven’t been screened for COVID-19 either. The nodal officers appointed by the UP government have failed to do their duty.”

“This is the biggest ever reverse migration in the country. This should be a case study to understand to which extent a flawed government policy can impact the poor. While planning lockdown our policy makers not only erred to calculate its duration but also failed to assess its impact on labourers, daily wagers, vendors and employees of private firms which constitute a big workforce”, says Mr Mishra.

What lies in the future for reverse migrants?

The next few weeks are going to be the toughest for the home states. They will have to arrange 15-day quarantine facilities and food along with medical check-up for lakhs of people reaching there. Large number of tests need to be conducted to trace all positive patients from this floating population in quickest time with meagre resources.

Authorities have their fingers crossed. Seven persons who returned to Basti (UP) from Maharashtra by special buses arranged by the Yogi Government last week have tested covid19 positive.

Their life would be never be the same as before, whenever they reach home.

The first question would be of livelihood. Apart from jobs, most of them have exhausted their savings as well. Harvest season of wheat, which comes as employment opportunity when they go home in summer, is already over.

“Home states like UP and Bihar had little to offer to them, otherwise they would have never migrated to far away states in the first place. Villages and small towns don’t have much opportunities anyway,” says Brajesh Mishra, Editor-in-Chief of Bharat Samachar TV.

He suggests that the MNREGA definition should be broadened to accommodate these skilled or semi-skilled workers. “The governments must immediately change the budgetary allocations and focus on to strengthen rural economy. Otherwise, malnutrition and hunger would engulf these.”

Prof Shaban however says MNREGA won’t help as it offers meagre wages and doesn’t attract the current generation.

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