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The usually invisible migrant worker has made a rare appearance on our TV screens

Our policymakers failed to learn from the Chinese, Filipino and Malaysian experience

March 31, 2020 / 10:39 AM IST
Migrant workers raise their hands as policemen ask them for their destination as they wait for buses along a highway with their families during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. (Image: Reuters)

Migrant workers raise their hands as policemen ask them for their destination as they wait for buses along a highway with their families during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. (Image: Reuters)

The reaction to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from our cities is as puzzling as the administration’s fond belief that they would calmly stay put after the lockdown, awaiting the tender mercies of a state that has mostly ignored them so far. Whole sections of the elite seem to have suddenly realised we have a lot of poor people who don’t have enough savings to tide over a few weeks of lockdown. Perhaps the sight of long lines of men, women and children trekking hundreds of miles on foot has driven home the desperation they face.

The migrant workers appear to have been invisible to our policy makers too. What else explains their overlooking what would seem to be an obvious issue? Faced with a threat from what seems a deadly disease, with no means of earning a living for an uncertain period, should one blame the workers for wanting to go back to their homes, to the support provided by their extended families, perhaps to a patch of land in the village? In the absence of social security, what alternative do they have? If the administration had announced at the time of the lockdown that they would be providing shelter and food and a dole, some would have stayed back, but even then many would prefer to go home.

It’s not as if our policy makers had no precedents. Chinese cities and provinces started their lockdowns after millions of migrant workers had gone to their villages for the New Year holiday in late January, extending the holiday, stopping transport and preventing the workers from returning. Perhaps the Indian administration thought that it was too late to do that as the virus had already spread in the cities and the workers could be carrying it back to the villages and small towns, whose ramshackle health centres did not have the facilities to cope with such emergencies. After all, the public health system in India is grossly underfunded.

But the Indian government also had the example of the Philippines, where President Duterte had ordered a lockdown of the entire Manila region from March 15. The president’s speech left people anxious and confused, because it gave no clear idea of how citizens would cope with the loss of jobs, or what services would remain open. The speech led to a run on supermarkets and to a panic-stricken rush of people to the countryside to beat the lockdown. It was a complete fiasco. The upshot: within a couple of days, Duterte extended the lockdown to the entire island of Luzon, on which Manila is situated.

The Indian government could also have learnt some lessons from Malaysia, where, after a partial lockdown order, citizens thronged police stations for passes to go back to their villages, throwing social distancing to the winds. Traffic increased on highways leading out of the cities. Nearer home, we could have learnt from the mass migration of workers to villages in Bangladesh, as the government there announced a lockdown. To be sure, India is a far bigger country, but that should have made policy makers even more cautious that all arrangements were in place to enforce the lockdown.


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Instead, we know now how completely unprepared they were. Policy makers have been running around making up ad hoc rules to deal with the mess. If even a few of those workers crammed like chickens into buses and trucks are carriers of the disease, they could infect thousands. Matters have been made worse by the police, who have no compunction about using brute force on the poor.

But then, did we really expect the response of Indian government to be any different? To be sure, the government has announced a relief package for the poor, but everything depends on its implementation and many will slip through the cracks. That happens even in normal times and the cracks are now likely to become gaping holes. We all know that state capacity in India is severely limited.

But we shouldn’t single out the Indian government. People have been sceptical about how social distancing can happen in Manila’s slums too. Indeed, these issues will arise in Third World countries across the world. In India, where slum-dwellers share public toilets, live ten to a room and brush against each other in the narrow lanes, social distancing is a distant ideal. And according to the World Bank indicators, only 59.5 percent of the Indian population had basic handwashing facilities with soap and water in 2017.

In short, the burden of the fight against the coronavirus is bound to fall disproportionately on the poor. How could it be otherwise, when the percentage of male workers in vulnerable employment in India is a huge 75 percent?

Here’s another telling statistic: the World Bank indicators say that, in 2016, government health expenditure per capita, (in current US dollars) was $15.95 in India compared to China’s $231.09. But then China is richer than India. Consider Vietnam instead, a country poorer than India -- its government health expenditure per capita in 2016 was $58.27. And India’s average life expectancy at birth in 2017 was 69 years, lower than Bangladesh’s 72 years, while Vietnam’s was 75 years.

So it’s not as if the Indian establishment’s heart bleeds for the poor. If that were so, the poorer half of the population would not have received just 11 percent of the growth in the economy between 1980 and 2014, as economists Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel have pointed out. It is therefore not surprising that the authorities didn’t really think about the problems of migrant workers when they formulated the lockdown.

Ironically though, the coronavirus epidemic may bring home to us that ignoring the health needs of the poor is no longer an option, simply because the infection is no respecter of class. As far as infectious diseases are concerned, we are all in the same boat. Self-interest, rather than caring about the poor, may make us allocate more resources to healthcare for the masses.

Do you think the migrant worker exodus could have been handled better? Write in with your views to
Manas Chakravarty
first published: Mar 31, 2020 10:39 am

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