By Gyan Pathak
India completes 14 months of the first lockdown, announced on March 24, 2020, that had created unprecedented chaos among the migrant workers, millions of them leaving their working places on foot in the absence of any means of transportation, without food to eat, without water to drink, and with little hope of getting them through deserted streets and closed doors. Thousands of them, with their women folk and children, travelled over thousands of miles, and in the way hundreds of them lost their lives. The scene had pricked the conscience of the world, save Modi government, if inaction is of any indication. Eight lakh migrant workers leaving the national capital last month is a proof.
It is a failure of Narendra Modi as a civilized Prime Minister, and it cannot be an over statement since India is a federal republic, where there is a single citizenship, and state governments cannot be blamed for migrant workers returning to their domicile or home states. If there is one nation and one nationalism, which is quite different from a Hindu Nation and Hindu Nationalism, Modi could have done something for migrant labour instead of lecturing their states of destination to do everything to assure them of protection so that they don’t return to their domicile states. If the migrant workers in the national capital, which is a Union Territory, and where government means an appointee of the Centre, not the elected Chief Minister, the responsibility of providing sufficient protection to the migrant workers lies entirely on the Centre, in which it clearly failed. On what moral right is Modi lecturing the states when he failed is giving help and securing the trust of migrant workers in the national capital under his nose and the rule through the appointee Lieutenant Governor, that too after one year of the chaos created by his first lockdown? This failure can be attributed to his being insensitive to the real needs of the migrant workers and lack of appropriate actions thereby.
It seems the Centre is suffering a bankruptcy of mind. When a domicile person of a state leaves one’s home state for another non-domicile state, the entire responsibility of his well-being must lie on the central government in a federal structure, since no domicile state has provision of separate citizenship, but only one citizenship that is of India. The central government must shoulder the responsibility for protection of the migrant workers with their state of destination and their states of domicile. It is more important because no state can be asked to plan for unlimited and uncertain number of non-residents. States can plan only for their residents or domicile persons. The destination states obviously would need more finance to financially protect the migrants. The domicile states have also certain responsibilities that they must fulfill while their people are in other states.
Had the Modi government kept this in mind, there would have been a comprehensive plan for migrant workers by now, with involvement of all the three parties – the Centre, the domicile States, and the destination States. Modi government relied on some cosmetic measures, such as one nation one ration card for migrant workers which is not maintainable in the present circumstances, housing facilities to be created in the future, registration of migrant workforce yet to be done, and so on. There are also moral lectures and advisories from PM Modi to the employers to protect jobs, but 7.35 million jobs were lost in the month of April 2021 alone with 8 per cent unemployment rate, which rose to 8.2 per cent by the week ending May 9 and 14.5 per cent by May 16. With such a high level of job loss and unemployment, how can migrant workers stay at their places of work in their destination states without any means of sustenance and help for the same not coming from anywhere?
That is why, the migrant workers started returning home when the second wave of COVID-19 struck in the second week of February 2021, at a time when Modi government declared an endgame of corona battle. Vaccine drive was already launched on January 16, 2021. However, vaccination at workplace option was provided only from May 1, and by that time almost 10 states in the country was under some sort of lockdown and very strict containment measures. Unavailability of vaccines and bias against migrant workers also hampered their vaccination. Scarce medical facilities available for them also became the cause of disheartenment.
In this backdrop only one option was left with the majority of migrant workers, that was to return home, even if they knew it well that they may not get work there. However, there was a hope and confidence on the village economy and the kind villagers as against shutdown of the city economy without any means of survival. Since there is no employment guarantee scheme for urban areas, there was no chance for them to get work as against existing rural employment guarantee scheme like MNREGA, and possibilities of access to food under Food Security Act.
Modi government must keep in mind that India, and also many other countries, are surviving on the works and contributions by the migrant workers. The report of the government of Delhi regarding 8 lakh migrant workers leaving home through busses only within a month should awaken the Modi government, far greater number might have left the NCR through other means of transportation including other private vehicles and trains. The situation in other cities is worse. With such migrant workers movement we need to tackle the crisis of broken link between skilled workers and the workplace. We need to rethink our whole strategy and decentralise works where there are workers. A comprehensive policy for migrant workers is need of the day. (IPA Service)