COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to its knees. The world economy is crippling fast and we are looking at the worst economic crisis in nearly a century. Something more glaring than the economic crisis is the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the streets of our country. The mass exodus of casual, unorganized labourers is shaking up the conscience of mankind. This pandemic hit everybody hard and we all were caught unprepared.
But the hardest hit were the urban migrants who lost their livelihood in cities and were left with no hand to their assistance. After the first lockdown, the Government of India came with a meagre economic relief package, followed by no integrated national approach to tackling this crisis for nearly five weeks. In this unprecedented moment of complete lockdown, the worst-hit had nothing to fall on. This humanitarian crisis was avoidable lest could have been better managed and tackled.
On May 8th in Aurangabad, a train ran over 16 sleeping migrants who were en route their native place. Almost a week later, 14 migrants were killed by a running roadways bus in Muzaffarpur and a 22-year-old boy died of exhaustion due to his ‘long walk to home’ from Hyderabad to Odisha. These ‘accidents’, which are just a few of many, speak loud and clear about the monumental failure of our society and precisely, of the government of the day.
Migrants were walking by themselves, some bare-footed and hungry, in the peak summer months to go to their home states because they saw no certainty about their future. Their guardian, the government, was entirely missing from the scene. The underlying humanitarian crisis of loss of lives and livelihoods of our urban migrants, who have been left to die and languish on their own, could have been avoided and better managed. As a society, we need to fix the accountability of the loss of these lives.
While complete lockdown was significantly needed to slow down the spread of the virus, the government of the day declared it without providing a roadmap on how to tackle the panic mass movement of casual, self-employed, unorganized labourers and workers due to complete halt on business and other activities and their resulting loss of livelihoods.
There were no detailed roadmap nor initiative by the Government of India on either to assure and inspire confidence in the migrant labourers to stay where they are (by promising quick, targeted, and sufficient compensation) or by arranging for their safe return to their native places.
Anyone would have seen it coming. How would one expect a migrant labourer of Bihar to stay in Delhi, pay his rent and other living expenses for indefinite days of lockdown without any source of income or monetary compensation? With the loss of income, the eventual drain of savings, and negligible government aid, the panic in the most vulnerable section is obvious.
The government in its insufficient relief package promised Rs.500 cash transfer into a woman’s Jan Dhan account per household per month and expected them to meet their entire expenses for a month? Apart from food grains that the government sought to provide, what about other expenses such as medicines, milk and milk products, house rent, and other miscellaneous expenses?
The government was delusional if it believed that Rs. 500 transfer per month per household and 5 kg food grains would ensure them a dignified and sufficient means to livelihood to keep them where they are and not move panickily. It was too little.
On 28th March, the 3 km long queue of migrants from UP, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh at Anand Vihar ISBT in Delhi (even after the announcement of relief package) to board buses for their native place was a case in point.
We, as a society, also had an onus to assist them according to our capacities. No doubt, civil society, and various help-groups came forward to voluntary aid the stranded migrants by providing them with food and ration. Some state governments also provided temporary settlement, food, and other relief measures to the stranded population.
But the scale and propensity of a crisis unfolding on our streets, visuals of migrants taking highways in the scorching heat, carrying luggage and their children on their shoulders, walking on bare-foot to their native villages—shows that these measures were unorganized, dispersed and irregular throughout the country. It did not have a consistent and effective impact on their conditions.
This particular mess needed a unified policy on a national level that would have a reach in terms of monetary compensation as well as official solidarity and confidence-building directed to quash away the plight of migrants.
A timely National Policy promulgated just after the lockdown, or even a dedicated task force with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), would have lessened the scale and propensity of this crisis. Not completely absolving state governments of their duties, but different SOP’s adopted by different states did not help.
A particular state government may have arranged roadways buses to take stranded people to their native places unless their home state government resisted this move and stopped them the borders only. There was no consistency in the steps taken by the various state governments given the conditions and necessities vary from state to state.
Not to mention the drying revenue of the state governments, who substantially depends on the central government for funds. That’s where a need for an integrated, authoritative allocation of rules or centrally mandated policy came in. An action-oriented vision was all that was needed.
Migrants were completely homeless, money-less, and hopeless from March 25, when the lockdown came into being till the May 1, when ‘Shramik Special’ trains were allowed to take stuck migrants to their home states. After five weeks of no action. To add to this, they were charged train fares until this news became a political controversy!
COVID-19 brought with itself healthcare, economic, and a humanitarian crisis. While there has been an institutional and planned response from the government in the healthcare sphere and partially in the economic sphere, it was completely missing in this particular humanitarian mess.
There was an institutional apathy from the side of the government to deal with this problem. The fight against the invisible enemy will not be won if it brings tremendous trauma and pain to a section of our population, that may stay with them for years.
The loss of life and livelihood for them will leave an indelible mark on their lives. While we should applaud and cheer our front-line workers in this fight against the pandemic, we also need to sensitize ourselves towards the growing pain of the numerous urban migrants and question the unconcern shown by authorities. Those who have a platform to speak should use it to the need of those who face apathy from the higher echelons of our society.
Twenty lakh crore’s fiscal stimulus package announced by PM Modi on the 50th day of lockdown is a welcome step. Except if it doesn’t over-care for only the supply chains than that was needed (as we have a demand-side problem) and ignore the plight of these labourers. There is a strong case of a substantial direct cash transfer to their accounts to sustain their livelihoods. Better late than never.