New Delhi: AIADMK MPs hold placards in protest against the construction of Megadatu dam across Cauvery River, during the Winter Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Dec. 19 , 2018. (PTI Photo/Atul Yadav) (PTI12_19_2018_000033B)
In June this year, the International Labour Organisation had termed India’s sudden lockdown as “one of the strictest” and estimated that up to 43 crore people were adversely affected by this single decision of the government. The lockdown had been announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last week of March, with just a four-hour notice.
Within weeks, tens of thousands of migrant workers began walking hundreds of miles on foot to reach their home States as all economic activity had been suspended, their livelihoods had been snatched and thanks to their landlords even the roofs over their heads were gone.
Many migrants perished on the way. A debate has raged ever since over the wisdom of a sudden lockdown and its significant consequences on the country’s economy and social parameters.
Government view: A successful intervention
The government has defended the lockdown along expected lines, saying it provided time to ramp up the country’s healthcare infrastructure, minimise the spread of Covid-19 infections and save lives.
In its reply to a parliamentary standing committee earlier, the Health Ministry had put a number to the deaths and Covid-19 infections averted due to the lockdown, without citing the source of this data. It had said that between March 23-June 30 (the lockdown period), up to 29 lakh cases and 78,000 deaths were averted. And that the lockdown “was a success in terms of limiting the spread of the disease”.
The report of this panel had also quoted ministry officials as saying that the growth-rate of Covid cases during the initial stage of the lockdown was 36 percent but was reduced to 3.3 percent by the time unlocking began.
More assertions followed: during the lockdown, 34 times more isolation beds, 20 times more ICUs, 35 times increased daily handling capacity of hospitals and opening of 1,331 test labs — with 6.61 lakh actual daily tests through RT -PCR and rapid antigen tests — was done.
Home affairs panel: unprecedented disruption
But now, another parliamentary standing committee, headed by veteran Congressman Anand Sharma, has pointed out that the sudden lockdown resulted in unprecedented hardships for the vulnerable sections of the population. The panel on Home Affairs, which was examining issues related to the pandemic, has said: “The lockdown led to the stoppage of intra-State and inter-State movement of people, goods, shutdown of factories, hotels, eateries, tourism etc and other economic activities that led to unprecedented disruption and severe social and economic fallouts. The migrant labourers, factory workers, daily wage earners were the worst affected.”
The Union home ministry has been shouldering the responsibility of managing the pandemic since it is the nodal ministry devising norms for the lockdowns and unlocking, resumption of economic activities, inter-State movement of people and goods, and for coordination with States.
The parliamentary panel has also said that since there was no timely information at the district level about the arrangements being made for food, shelter and other facilities for the arriving migrants, “anxiety and uncertainty gripped the migrant labourers and workers and led to their movement in large numbers to their home States. This stopped only when effective mitigating measures were taken by the Central and State governments.”
Among the recommendations of this panel are an overhaul of the very laws the government had cited in its replies. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979 was cited to show how the government took care of migrant workers and the vulnerable sections during the pandemic. This Act provides for payment of minimum wages, journey allowance, displacement allowance, residential accommodation, medical facilities and protective clothing, etc. Several other laws have also been invoked.
The Parliamentary panel has referred to the uncertainty and inadequate social security, lack of access to affordable housing, health benefits and other basic amenities forcing migrant workers to return in such large numbers to their home States. “The lack of these benefits points to the ineffective implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979,” it said and sought a review of this law.
It has also urged the government to frame a new piece of legislation — a comprehensive public health act — to keep a check and to control private hospitals that have profiteered from the pandemic.
Then, the task of identifying the location and disbursing relief measures to migrant workers became very difficult as the Centre did not have any data on these migrants and had to ask States. So, the panel has first of all asked the government to develop a national database for all vulnerable sections, including migrant workers, the urban poor and workers engaged in the unorganised sector.
As of now, using myriad tracking mechanisms such as the number of passengers transported in Shramik Trains and the nearly decade old Census data, the government arrives at an estimate for migrant workers without much certainty.
Secondly, the panel has urged the government to operationalise pan-India operability of PDS Ration Cards so that vulnerable sections of the population entitled for free foodgrain can receive this entitlement anywhere in the country.