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Corona virus traps the poor migrant workers of India

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Arunika Sharma
Arunika Sharma
Ms. Arunika Sharma is currently working as an Architect in District Kangra of Himachal Pradesh, India.

As soon as India announced its coronavirus lockdown on March 24, millions of internal migratory workers were trapped in cities far away from their respective hometowns.

Now with their livelihoods coming to a halt and savings running out fast, some decided to return to their villages. But with transportation services halted and state borders sealed that wasn’t really an option, so thousands of migrant workers in the cities came together and left for their homes in one of the biggest mass movements of people in the country since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. For many, the journey would take days and some even have died on their way. But they believe if they cannot work, they would not be paid and eventually they will not be able to feed their families and pay the house rents. They at least, have a roof over their head back home and a harvest to help them survive.

This incident has shone a spotlight on the plight of millions of poor Indians who migrate from villages to cities in search of livelihood so that they can earn a double of what they could have earned in their native place. The lockdown has left them stranded far away with no job and money.

The migrant workers setting out on foot to their hometowns became a common sight following the national lockdown
The migrant workers setting out on foot to their hometowns became a common sight following the national lockdown (Photo Source: IANS)

This problem may not be entirely unique to our country but the scale of more than 40 million migrant labourers that are stranded indeed makes it difficult, to provide relief to everyone.

The migrants who move from villages work as domestic helpers, taxi drivers, gardeners, or as daily-wagers on construction sites, building malls, flyovers and homes, street vendors in the cities and are backbone of the urban economy. They are a necessity for India’s rapidly expanding cities but predominantly earn daily wages, with no prospect of job security, and live in dirty, densely populated slums, saving hard earned money to send back home. This money is essential to the young and elderly left behind in the villages.

CONTRIBUTION OF MIGRANT WORKERS TO THE INDIAN ECONOMY

Travelling long distances from far remote villages seeking work in India’s bustling cities they leave behixnd their families to form a crucial lifeline for the economic wellbeing for a million more families. It is estimated that internal migrants constitute around 20 percent of the workforce and contribute an estimated 10 percent of India’s economic output. (source: UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation)

Their contribution is enormous but have we actually done justice to this sector, as they have been working without formal work contracts and have been vulnerable to exploitation, risk and abuse. Many earn nominal wage and have no social security to protect their income if they lose their jobs. The income they earn is the only source of livelihood for them as well as for those they had left behind back home and this loss is a danger sign of increase in rural development failure.

Talking of the industrial or construction sector, maximum number of migrant workers are being employed in this sector but there is still a lack of accurate data due to their high mobility and exclusion from the official surveys by Government of India.

Migrant worker kills himself amid lockdown
He had no money to feed his family of six. Last week, Mukesh Mandal, a 30-year-old migrant worker, sold his phone for Rs. 2,500 to feed his family and then committed suicide, in the Indian state of Haryana. (Photo Source: Twitter/@BDUTT)

WHAT IS BEING DONE

The lockdown in India in comparison to other countries has proved to be an effective and successful measure we cannot neglect the hardships inflicted on our poor migratory workers. India’s migrant labourers are significant in number but this group has been a political neglect, though some measures have already been taken up by the government like setting up community kitchens and converting schools into welfare centres.

Also, in order to prevent, migrants going back to their respective villages the Government has directed the states to provide them with food and shelter but too little time was given to implement this before lockdown was imposed.

Under pressure to address the growing emergency Central Government announced Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, a welfare scheme for the poor which included doubling the amount of free food rations under an existing national programme, benefits senior citizens, and raising wages per day for those working under the government’s rural employment scheme. Though analysts have warned that this outlay of less than 1 percent of GDP, is not enough to stem the crisis and is mostly a “repackaging” of existing schemes.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

The main problem is that the system in India is not designed with the migrant worker in mind. India should realise internal migration as a failure of policy rather than engine of growth. If people are moving to the cities in search of jobs this means that the government should work harder in order to make the villages more attractive such that their welfare systems protect the workers in the factory and farmers in the field instead of migrants selling things in the middle of the roads for their livelihoods.

Another important issue is that the politicians need to realise differently about who their actual voters are and where their votes come from. If all the workers lining early morning at the bus stop for work voted in respective cities, instead of in villages that is thousand miles away local leaders would be far more responsive towards the troubles of these poor migrant workers. National leaders need to re-examine their employment policies and social protection and redesign them with internal migration in mind.

Currently India has a huge stock of excess grain, this could be used to feed those struggling to get by, and this could be perfect matching solution for the government’s crisis of storing the winter crop.

As far as distributing ration is concerned, it has been a concern for these workers since lockdown. Many workers are unable to access food via the government’s Public Distribution Service since all their identity documents show out-of-state address and it is difficult for a person, whose rural home is say- 2000 kilometres away from where he has been working,

Therefore, all State Governments could also simplify by removing the need for a ration card and distribute rations/ food packets to these workers.

Many countries have used cash transfers to support their migrants during the Corona pandemic. Our country has also followed the similar practice by announcing an extra benefit transfer over three months directly into the Jan Dhan Bank accounts which were being provided under the Central Government financial inclusion programme but the amount which is being promised to be transferred is petty and worth approximately a three day wage for a construction worker. But the cash transfers should not only be restricted to Jan Dhan accounts as many migrants are unlikely to be covered by it.

Though the Government has taken measures to address the crisis, like distributing food on a massive scale and pressing employers to pay wages and landlords to waive rents. In spite of all these significant efforts, more needs to be done as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes, Special Measures should also take into account the particular situation of migrant women, who are among those most economically vulnerable and impacted by the situation.

Its high time government starts focusing more on protecting those who are working towards changing lives of the nation. If governments can create a solid and secure ladder to prosperity for migrants — a way for them to transfer their rights, their IDs, and their votes to the city; a place for them to live; and some basic social protection if things go wrong — then they should be able to trust those strivers to do the rest.

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Arunika Sharma
Arunika Sharma
Ms. Arunika Sharma is currently working as an Architect in District Kangra of Himachal Pradesh, India.
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