Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on May 06, 2020
Return of the migrants

More than a month after the imposition of a national lockdown that forbade migrant workers, tourists, students and the stranded from returning to their chosen destinations, the ministry of Home Affairs relented and was willing to review its earlier policy and its consolidated guidelines. “Due to lockdown, migrant workers, pilgrims, students and other persons are stranded at different places. They would be allowed to move,” Union Home Secretary's order of 29 April 2020 said.

Several factors led to a change in Government of India’s (GoI) earlier decision to hold migrants back.  Massive protests of migrant daily wage earners in Gujarat, Mumbai and Delhi demanded arrangements for home travel. The huge exodus of migrant labourers that hit the streets of Delhi to walk back to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states was a petrifying sight. These events in turn evoked public criticism. The duplicity of GoI stand was stark – it was sending planes to ferry Indians from foreign lands, but was insensitive when it concerned the poorest of poor Indians wanting to go back home.

The intervention of the Supreme Court seems to have played a significant part in the reversal of the earlier stand. Responding to a PIL filed in the highest Court that sought issuance of directions to Government that the migrants be allowed to return to their rural homes, the Centre reported that in the interest of preventing the pandemic to spread, Government did not favour any such internal migration. Hence the migrants, who had begun treading to their distant homes on foot, had been stopped on way and had been lodged in shelter homes. It also stated that the Centre was in discussion with the states on the matter. The Centre was given a week’s time to complete deliberations and come back to the Court with their response. It is clear that in the consultations GoI had with states, the combined opinion went overwhelmingly in favour of the return of the migrants to their village homes. This further pressured Government of India to concede.

Advising due precaution, the MHA counselled states to designate nodal authorities and develop an SOP (standard operating procedure) for receiving and sending stranded people. The nodal authority was charged with the task of registering those who sought to return to their native homes. “In case a group of stranded persons wish to move between one state/UT and another state/UT, the sending and receiving states must consult each other and mutually agree to the movement by road,” the order said. The Centre also asked state governments to screen people who were to leave and allow only asymptomatic persons to move.

Originally, transport was authorised to take place by buses. These were to be arranged by the states. Buses were directed to be sanitised and social distancing norms maintained. Once the travelers reached their destination, the state authorities were to screen and decide on home or institutional quarantine. Thankfully, to the great relief of states, migrants and all concerned citizens, GoI’s initial insistence on transport of lakhs of migrants by buses has been amended. Most states such as Maharashtra, Bihar, Kerala, Punjab and Telengana had insisted that special trains be arranged for transportation. Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi rightly explained that “the number of those wanting to return is likely to be huge. If we depend on buses, the process could take months to complete,” he said in a video message.

Trains now have been begun to take the very large number of migrants to their destinations. This is without doubt a wise move. Buses would have been unable to cope with both numbers and distances. It is only trains that can stand the twin tests. Besides, they will be quicker, safer, kinder to the migrants in the sweltering heat and more economical. The task before the receiving states – registering, screening, transporting small batches to different village destinations and making quarantining arrangements for lakhs of migrants – is a daunting task and would have to be performed with great meticulousness and thought. The exercise should under no circumstance serve the cause of the pandemic.

Whereas the Centre’s order mentioned tourists and students among the stranded, this article wishes to concentrate on the migrant workers. The numbers of other categories are small and easily manageable. It is the question of migrants that is huge and it is this category that has compelled the Government to revise its earlier position.

One of the truths that dawn on administrations as they go about their myriad jobs is that the administrative resolve to enforce an official order cannot, in the ultimate analysis, excel the indomitable human will to survive. The rise of slums in cities despite the laws on unauthorised construction and land use that made such growth criminally punishable is a case in point. Over decades, millions migrated to metros to escape rural hunger and employment. Despite the laws, they found support of local politicians and slumlords and no amount of demolitions carried out by civic bodies could stem the tide. Over time, slums perforce had to be recognised and laws protective towards slums passed. Civic services such as water, roads, toilets and street lights were extended and demolitions became a thing of the past. In hindsight, the order to prevent millions of migrants from returning home was destined to fail on account of its unsustainability, given the ultimate readiness of hundreds of thousands of migrants to brave the scorching heat and sun and walk back home.

Furthermore, the substantial official safety net of food, gas and money, primarily crafted for the poorest of the poor that comprise the migrant labourers, could not match the emotional power of the family safety net and the overwhelming human desire to find comfort among their dearest ones. It is well-known that many migrants do not bring along their wives and children who continue to look after what little they have back home. It is not difficult to fathom the pain, anxiety and the worst apprehensions that separation in such difficult times would have made these migrants suffer.

Additionally, not all migrants seek all-weather work at their place of migration. Many go back in the season of harvesting and sowing to assist their kith and kin back home. Unfortunately, the pandemic and the lockdown have coincided with the harvesting of rabi crops. Thousands of migrants, itching to go back, would also be on account of the necessity to participate in the harvesting process. Moreover, they will be able to find work on the restarted Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Programme (MGNREGA).

While there was some justification behind the GoI apprehension of the migrants turning into ‘virus spreading agents’ if they were infected, the contrary also holds that their dispersal in rural areas does not perhaps greatly enhance the risk profile of their villages because of much lesser densities, where social distancing is easy. The added benefit is the reduction of densities in metros because of the out-migration of lakhs of migrants and a more manageable kind of situation emerging in the slums of the cities.

Lastly, democracies appear unkind if they go against the wishes of such large numbers of the poor. All of us who watched the Chinese crackdown on its citizens would not countenance a similar treatment of citizenry in a democracy. It is in time such as these that the true value of a democratic society is brought to the fore. Nothing should be done to take away from the dear truth that democracies cannot be excelled by any other form of government in highlighting and resolving the concerns of its people.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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