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More than a Health Crisis

Dr K K Paul | This article was first published in The Pioneer on Wednesday, 25 May 2020.

More than a health crisis

A pandemic invariably leads to a health crisis, which has an economic fallout, too. This has been the trend in almost all countries that are reeling under the impact of Coronavirus. The additional crisis posed by the mass exodus of the migrant labourers is more or less specific to our country and is bound to have some far-reaching consequences.

For a long time to come, heart-rending images of the migratory efflux will be the defining moment of the Corona-inspired lockdown. Having lost their livelihood, without any savings and no hope for the future, lakhs of workers left for their hometowns and villages. In the absence of any transportation during the first month-and-a-half, out of sheer desperation, they set out with meagre belongings on roads and highways. Some even covered more than a thousand kilometres on foot. Though their decision must have been voluntary, the fact is the prevailing circumstances left them with little option.

The present crisis is a multi-dimensional one but for now, the focus has shifted almost entirely to the economy and less on health. In the long run, this may also emerge as a major social issue. The migratory process, its effects and the growth of slums in urban areas have been studied comprehensively but the instant case is that of reverse migration. Earlier, this phenomenon was attributable to individual behaviour and decisions but in the present context, it has assumed the shape of a mass efflux. Individuals and families, who are suffering, having been uprooted physically for no fault of theirs, are not only bound to be unhappy but also bitter. Given the present situation, this bitterness does not appear to be disappearing anytime soon. The reason as to why these people were forced to leave their villages in the first place might, perhaps, confront them in a more aggravated form now as they get back to their home States.

Under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, the Government had ordered on March 24 that all employees — be it industry, shops or commercial establishments — will have to pay wages to their employees even when they are not in operation during the lockdown. Landlords, too, were asked not to charge rent or get the premises vacated from their worker-tenants. Pursuant to a judgment from the Supreme Court, this order was withdrawn on May 18, without any alternative arrangement, thus leaving the migrants high and dry. The Supreme Court ruled that the Ministry of Home Affairs’ order was violative of Article 19 (1)(g) of the Constitution with respect to the rights of private firms. It’s another matter that prior to its withdrawal, the order was being observed more in violation. Perhaps the case for the migrant workers could have been presented more effectively.

More glaring is the non-implementation of the Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979. Known as ISMW, rules under the said Act were framed and notified in 1980. The implementing authorities for this Act are the respective chief labour commissioners. Perhaps they could not foresee the enormity of the situation and, thus, could not react in time. Also, the efflux of the workers was only initially prevented.

In fact, some action was taken against erring officers, who tried to facilitate their movement but after some time, the decision was reversed, leading to confusion in making arrangements for their safe transportation. The registration for workers wanting to migrate has begun only now and that, too, at selective places. The ISMW has specific provisions for such registrations in the normal course of working of the labour department, which, perhaps, was being neglected.

It is true that in its original form, the Act applied to migrants of only certain classes. With a small amendment, it could have been extended to all categories. Complete neglect on the part of the ISMW appears to be one of the factors that may have widened the difference between the workers, labour, migrants and the administration.

Ever since the liberalisation of the economy and pro-labour legislations coming into force, unrest among the wagers had become a thing of past. The well-known trickle-down effect came into full play and a record number of people could move away from poverty. Some of these pro-labour legislations are now in the process of being abandoned with States like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan undertaking major changes in them to woo investment. In fact, the higher judiciary has already taken cognisance of this and has asked some pertinent questions on behalf of the workers and their rights.

Experience shows that bringing the economy back on the rails cannot be achieved if our working classes are unhappy. The role of the trade unions will have to be considered afresh in the changed circumstances. Unions have more or less remained dormant during the last two decades and are now coming back with a cause, which may not augur well for the industry as a whole.

An extremely important question that has not been debated so far is: What next? For how long will the migrant workers stay on and whether this efflux is for good. Whatever be the status of a worker in society, he/she did have access to a certain level of facility in urban areas. All of them became used to their lives and would certainly miss them badly back home. So does this mean that this efflux is a temporary phenomenon and that things will normalise in due course?

Considering the alienation that they have undergone, it does not appear that the workers would be coming back too soon unless some confidence-building measures are taken. This should entail a review of some of the regressive laws that work against the interests of the labourers. Alienation of the workforce has several manifestations but one of the worst forms is estrangement of man from man. It would have pained them where it hurts the most to see a complete lack of empathy among sections of society who could have helped them tide the crisis. Only a handful of NGOs stepped in to help. Generally, Government agencies were a big letdown. This may have further aggravated the situation.

The Government’s decision to increase the allocation for MGNREGA up to Rs 40,000 crore is a step in the right direction. Though in a limited manner, this can certainly help the migrants tide over the immediate crisis when they reach their home States. Our MPs and MLAs, who could have undertaken immediate relief measures, are handicapped in the absence of funds that have been already diverted.

Additionally, existing resources of the State Governments have come under severe stress. Their borrowing capacity needs to be enhanced further. In the event where a bulk of the migrants would not want to go back to their original workplaces, focus will have to be on the creation of appropriate levels of employment opportunities in the vicinity. Obviously, investment in the area of rural development and employment would have to be increased in affected districts where there has been a sudden influx of population. The Providing Urban Facilities in Rural Areas (PURA) model, as suggested by former President Abdul Kalam, can also be taken into consideration.

Today, a much greater responsibility lies with the State Governments, who have to not only provide the arriving migrant force with medical care but also treat them with empathy and help absorb them in the existing social milieu, physically, psychologically and economically.

(The writer is a former Governor and a Senior Advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)

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