3 ways India could solve its migrant crisis amidst a pandemic

first_imgIt’s painful for any human to see a fellow being eat a dead animal for want of food, to see him walk thousands of kilometres in scorching heat for want of shelter, to see fellow beings get overrun by trains and trucks as they walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes, even as government’s own transport infrastructure stagnates in its coach yards.A colossal mismanagement in the movement of migrant labourers across India caused by a sudden lockdown has created the largest humanitarian crisis, dwarfing the pandemic in India.India’s internal migrants account for 37% of its population or about 450 million migrants, as per Census 2011. However, inter-state migrants account for 12% or just about 54 million.The ones who are severely impacted by the sudden lockdown are our taxi drivers, rickshaw pullers, house-maids, construction workers, factory labourers working across India’s urban centres.Caused by an overnight loss of wages, jobs and subsequently food and shelter, the workers started walking towards home, sometimes covering distances of over 1,000 kilometres.An overnight lockdown on their jobs has created one of the biggest migrant movements, the world has ever seen since after Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, which displaced about 5 million.It is unlikely that hungry men would fear jail for flouting a lockdown. If only they would be thankful that the state arrest and provid them shelter and food.However, even as the current man-made crisis unfolds amidst a natural pandemic, there are lessons to be learnt, in how to deal with the situation going forward.Here are three ways India could have avoided a mass migration of workers:1. Give ample notice to any economic lockdown: If India would have given even a 5-7 day notice to a lockdown just like other countries such as Singapore, UK and NZ, migrant workers would have made some arrangements to reach homes, like they do on major festivals every year. Factories would have prepared for a temporary closure for a few weeks, keeping minimal staff to maintain hazardous equipment or chemicals.Now, when these workers are already on roads in other states trying to reach their homes, it will be difficult for factories to start mass manufacturing.2. Announce wage support for the vulnerable: Like other countries, if India announces a minimum guarantee of even Rs 5000-Rs 6000 per month in Jan Dhan accounts, most workers would still avoid migration. They would have some money to keep a roof on their heads, till the curve flattens.While some nations have done it through employers, others have resorted to direct benefit transfers, sponsoring majority of the wages of the employees, and making any retrenchment illegal. Such models have worked in Germany, US, UK, Canada, Australia, in ensuring lockdown.Even if the government decided to deposit Rs 5,000 each month till three months in all 318 million Jan Dhan accounts, the total money needed would be Rs 4.77 lakh crores, much lesser than the Rs 20 lakh crore announced by the Union government.Deposit Rs 15,000 in just one person’s account in a household, and the figure could fall to less than Rs 1.2 lakh crore.In fact, Aadhaar was conceptualised for this very reason of easing Direct Benefit Transfers.Another model is paying through MNREGA. Since 2014-15 there has been a 25% increase in youth registered under MNREGA, due to rising unemployment in India.The decision to use MNREGA than JanDhan accounts as the only means of direct benefit transfer could increase migration. Most work under the MNREGA scheme is available in rural areas where the youth can at least get 100 days of guaranteed unskilled work.While this will declutter cities in the long term, in the short term it could mean more migration, amidst a pandemic.While the virus cannot be eliminated from the face of earth, lockdowns do buy time to rapidly scale up healthcare infrastructure.3. Arrange transport for the stranded migrants: Indian Railways, is world’s fourth largest railway network. spread over 95,000 kilometres.India has about 13,523 trains, as per 2018-19 data. The entire network transports over 23 million people daily.The country has over 1.6 million registered buses in India and there are over 10 million trucks in India. While there are no estimates for the current migrant crisis, even if all the 54 million migrants decided to go home tomorrow, Indian railways has the capacity to transport them all within days.Going by last year’s figures, it already transports the entire inter-state migrant worker population of India of over 54 million from point A to B, every two days.A minimum support given by the government earlier would have meant that the workers could have paid for their own fare.States could ask for district wise trains from where state buses and trucks would ply these migrants back to their villages.NGOs could have helped IRCTC in providing the migrants a satisfying meal a day, on trains.As the world knows it now, infection caused due to a coronavirus is not a dangerous disease if managed well.There was a fear that these migrants could carry the virus with them to hinterlands. But that is manageable through screening, social distancing, running partly empty trains and buses.Even if a fraction of the migrant workers currently on roads are infected with the disease, perils of the arduous journey could mean higher fatalities.A study sample of 835 migrants shows that one in four labourers were tested positive upon their return to Bihar from Delhi, this month.State machinery can inform via SMSes those migrants who are already in the midst of their journey of trains being arranged for them at the next district station.Screening and quarantine facilities just outside railway stations could be needed at district levels.All these steps, could alleviate a crisis, which could be emerge even bigger than the pandemic, the world is facing.last_img