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Last Updated : Mar 30, 2020 04:18 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

COVID-19 pandemic | Centre and states must join hands to address problems migrant workers face

When this pandemic has gone, this migrant crisis must be studied to understand the flaws, so that similar mistakes are never repeated, and the State is more sensitive towards problems the unorganised sector faces.

Migrant workers, who are returning to their villages, try to catch a water bottle. REUTERS
Migrant workers, who are returning to their villages, try to catch a water bottle. REUTERS

‘Trains made unscheduled halts at stations where television was installed. Newly-appointed ministers put off their swearing-in ceremonies so as not to miss an episode….A bride delayed her appearance at her wedding to watch the Ramayana.’

The above text from Mark Tully’s ‘Non-Stop India’, describes how Ramanand Sagar’s 78-episode TV show Ramayana influenced the lives of Indians.

Given this, the Information & Broadcasting ministry’s decision to re-telecast some of its popular yesteryear TV sops is a good move. The underlying idea behind it could be that these shows will keep the people engaged indoors, which is an essential requirement to maintain social distancing — and thereby hope that the SARS CoV-2 would infect fewer people. Some would argue that there could also be an underlying political motive for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to consider such a move, but I’ll be digressing here.


To this effect I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar was on the job in spreading the news that popular yesteryear TV sops were back on Doordarshan. The minister also tweeted a photo of him enjoying a TV serial. However, while the minister was observing the lockdown from the comfort of his living room, barely a few kilometres away from where he was, tens of thousands of migrant workers were crowding at an inter-state bus terminal in the hope of getting back to their homes in other states.

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Following this, the minister removed that tweet, and sort of covered up for it by posting one showing how ‘Home has become office’.

That the Government of India did not adequately think about the crisis the lockdown announcement would bring about is by now clear. If the government thought that the 21-day lockdown would go about peacefully, much like the Janata Curfew implemented on March 22, how wrong was it!

There can be no two ways about the clear and present danger COVID-19 poses. The 21-day lockdown — which could even extend if the outbreak is not under control — will bring about economic and social pressures hitherto unknown. In that sense there is a limit to what the government can ‘prepare’ for. However, the tales of human suffering since March 25, the long queues of people waiting for food, the multitude of people at state borders in Delhi and other parts of the country, point a finger at the government for its lack of foresight.

How could the government think that a 4-hour notice on March 24, 8PM, was good enough for a nation-wide shutdown! More time was given to observe the Janata Curfew and for the symbolic clap in support of front line workers. If parallels are drawn to the November 9, 2016, demonetisation announcement, it’s because of the widespread chaos and unimaginable suffering visited upon the poor, migrant workers and those in the unorganised sectors.

The mixed messaging from the authorities has also not helped. If in the beginning it was told that essential services and deliveries would be unaffected, the decision was soon revoked. The efforts of the police to ensure the lockdown must be largely praised, but, there’s no excuse for the brutality some have meted out to people who have been pushed out on the streets with no food and shelter.

After the migrant labour crisis was highlighted over the weekend, state governments have sprung into action, but what took them so long? Why did the Delhi government and other state governments wait for a crisis to open up schools and make other relief arrangements for daily-wage workers and migrant workers? Were the states also caught unawares by the Centre’s lockdown announcement? If that’s the case, this crisis reiterates that in a federal system the Centre and states cannot work in silos.

There are administrative limitations to what the Centre can do, and, thus, it cannot be singled out in this — why weren’t the states prepared? What stopped the Delhi government, or the Kerala government which saw its first COVID-19 case more than a month ago, prepare for the moment? The migrant workers in these states are the respective states’ responsibility. Law and order is not the responsibility of the Centre. Clearly Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram failed in communicating with migrant workers. While focusing on their own people, these states forgot the ‘guest workers’ (as migrant workers are now referred to in Kerala).

This is not to say that the State does not have the best intentions towards its citizens — but best intentions are not a substitute for superior planning and flawless execution. Thomas Edison was right in saying, ‘a good intention, with a bad approach, often leads to a poor result.’

Ranveer Singh, a 38-year-old migrant worker from Madhya Pradesh, died on the Delhi-Agra highway on March 28. After the lockdown, the restaurant he was working at in South Delhi shut down and Singh walked for about 200 km before collapsing and dying. Singh is the first recorded lockdown fatality.

The migrant crisis over the weekend is only one of the several problems the lockdown has thrown up. In the days ahead, the administration must be better prepared to face others as well. In addition to the physical difficulties of enforcing a lockdown, there are also the psychological risks that need to be factored in. For example, so far the COVID-19 deaths in Kerala are one, but the deaths due to non-availability of alcohol has led to seven suicides, one cardiac arrest and one death after a man consumed an aftershave lotion.

As mentioned earlier, there are no checklists to refer to, because nowhere in the world has such a massive lockdown been done—but, a sensitive and responsive administration will go a long way in tackling these problems.

It is heartening to see that the Centre has got into action and along with the states will hopefully see that there are no more lives lost to the hardships caused by the lockdown. When this pandemic has gone, this migrant crisis must be studied to understand the flaws so that these mistakes are never repeated.
First Published on Mar 30, 2020 04:18 pm