Many migrant workers are stranded even without a nationwide lockdown – and it is not making news

The second wave of distress migration is taking shape during India’s Covid-19 health emergency. Effective steps to ensure the right to return home for migrant workers can do much to alleviate another impending man-made disaster but the state’s response has been of indifference.

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New Delhi: For many, Sunday night at the inter-state bus terminus in Anand Vihar brought back memories from last year. In 2020, Prime Minister Modi’s surprise announcement of a 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 23 had spurred at least 1.04 crore migrant workers to set off for home, breaching the operational capacities of major urban transit nodes within hours. The Delhi government’s decision to put the city under lockdown for a week, starting from 10 pm on Monday, has set off similar anxieties once again. Images reminiscent of last year’s crisis have also been trickling in from Mumbai and Chennai, both of which are hubs of inbound migration.

While India’s public healthcare system breaking down under the second wave of Covid-19 requires our immediate attention, an undercurrent of urban distress is palpable once again among India’s precariat. The majority of this workforce pegged at anywhere between 80 to 90 per cent of the total workforce, is part of India’s burgeoning ‘informal economy. It is perennially plagued by insecure employment, ‘hire-and-fire norms and the lack of state or employer-backed social security provisioning.

As first-responders for a workers’ helpline during the two rounds of Covid-19 lockdowns, we have been witnessing a new crisis shaping up once again. Even when the country is not yet under lockdown and major rail and road routes remain open, all is not smooth sailing for those looking to return from their urban workplaces.

Ludhiana to Motihari @ ₹25,000

Tilak Mahato has been a steelworker in Punjab for four years. He hails from Bihar’s Motihari district. Normally, a train ride home from Ludhiana, where he works, would cost him around ₹700. But rail routes are stretched at maximum capacity.

“I tried to get on a bus. But the agent only wants to reserve the whole bus. Even with 20 people, that still comes to ₹25,000 per head. Where will we get that money after sitting at home for half this year?”

Inflated travel costs plagued migrant workers during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown as well. The unavailability of trains or buses forced many to cover thousands of kilometres on foot. After much outcry, the central government had started Shramik Special trains for migrant workers but a tussle soon ensued over state governments’ being forced to bear the lion’s share of the costs.

As India’s COVID crisis worsens, leaders play the blame game while the poor suffer once again

No significant ramping up of transport facilities has accompanied the gradual enforcement of lockdown across states this year. Only two new routes have been flagged off between New Delhi and Bihar which is far short of what is required. (By contrast, 27 express trains have been arranged by the central government during the height of the second wave for a month-long religious gathering at Haridwar’s Mahakumbh Mela.)

Another group of workers had already spent hours trying to reach the ticket counters at Anand Vihar, Pragati Maidan and Paharganj bus terminals before one of them, Imran, called the helpline. The team had been employed by a small-scale bad making unit in New Delhi’s bustling Sadar Bazar area. They were told to go home. Similarly, another daily wage worker Sonu Sau is willing to dive into his savings for a marriage in the family so that he can make it in time for the ceremonies.

“We are ready to stay here and work… but is this up to us, you tell me,’ Imran asks. “Now private buses are extorting four or five times the normal fare. But we don’t have anything to keep us in Delhi. How can mere appeals to stay on here help?”

The long walk home had not been without hurdles last year either. Dilly-dallying on the decision to allow inter-state travel by returning migrant workers was fuelled by anxieties within certain quarters about the virus spreading further. This was the rationale advanced by an early Home Ministry directive calling for a muscular response to the migrant workers’ exodus. However, all state-backed safety nets soon gave way and led to travel ban being lifted.

Moneyed interests had also played a role in prolonging the journey. In Karnataka, lobbyists representing construction agencies had met with Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa to withdraw the green signal for train travel by migrant workers in May 2020. The state government had given in to the builders, before recanting, after an internal Home Department communique predicted unrest in the state escalating further.

This time is different

The difference in mortality rates between the two waves of Covid-19 has changed the nature of the crisis. This time, anxieties regarding the spread of the virus have taken a backseat when critical failures in stocking hospitals and quarantine centres with oxygen, ventilators and medication have created more urgent crises.

After last year’s experience, a centralised public safety response to the pandemic has been avoided so far. The prime minister is boasting about the size of election rallies. He is advising children to make sure their elders quarantine. However, policies related to the manufacturing and procurement of essential drugs and medical supplies have been set centrally, giving major multinational pharmaceutical giants a free run to set the terms of the bargain. In a major advance for the right-wing, neoliberal ideology of market-based competition, states such as Maharashtra have begun shopping for vaccines directly from foreign manufacturers. The central government has encouraged such bilateral deals at rates favouring the private cartels, abdicating its regulatory powers even during the crisis. It has ignored the uneven development among states, which positions some citizens at an advantage over others by an accident of birth.

What appears to be a more hands-off approach from the central government has left citizens to fend for themselves. The unorganised workforce, most of which comes from among the historically marginalised, is the worst placed to pull through alone. Healthcare, transport and every such sector which has emerged all the more crucial during a crisis has suffered major bouts of privatization in the past year itself. Suffering too, then, is bound to becoming privatised. That way, it is all the more profitable.

Sourya Majumder(@DelhiSourya) is a volunteer with Migrant Workers Solidarity Network.

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