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Internal migrants in peril

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Viruses are egalitarian. Coronavirus certainly is. It isn’t selective in whom it should affect. It can be rich or poor, male or female, whatever the age group and economic status. Undoubtedly, there are variations within each country on who is more affected by the coronavirus, but that is mostly because of who is most exposed to it and certain external conditions rather than the virus itself like people who are aged above 80 and among the people with other diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are prone to high fatality rates.

But indirectly, this virus dragged many sections of the society into troubled waters. This is also because of ineffective action from the government side to protect those people. One such a section is the internal migrant workers, who are mostly seasonal and daily wage workers, who moved from rural areas to urban spaces for work, within a district or within the districts of a state or between states in India. Most of these internal migrants are landless agriculture labourers who migrate to urban areas for work, leaving their families behind in the villages in non-agricultural seasons.

They are employed in construction sector, manufacturing sector, transportation and trade related activities. These internal migrants are more likely to be poor people, with no formal education and minimal or no assets, and with many liabilities in the form of loans mostly from informal sources. The vulnerability of internal migrants is increased because of their backward caste identities: 39.9% migrants belong to Other Backward Castes and 41.7% from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

From the news reports emerging since the beginning of the lockdown about the perilous conditions of the internal migrants, it is very evident that they are one of the most affected because of the lockdown imposed in the country. In this lockdown period, they have no jobs in their hand, they can’t go back to their native places and they are uncertain about their future after lockdown.

Another aspect of this problem is its effects of the rural economy. A large number of rural households depend on the domestic remittances that they receive. Now that the migrants from their families are not earning any income or in a position to send money to their families in rural areas will put their families in trouble, especially on the states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orrisa for their high dependency on domestic remittances.

A survey report titled ‘Voices of the Invisible Citizens: A Rapid Assessment on the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Internal Migrant Workers- Recommendations for the State, Industry & Philanthropies’ released by an NGO Jan Sahas, found that 42% of labourers had no ration left even for the day. Their either did not have money to buy rations or have no ration cards or did not know how to access the rations in their current locations. This also poses the problem of inaccessibility. Central Government and various state governments released various directives and schemes for the same. Now the question is how effective are there schemes and will they reach the targeted groups.

In the survey report of Jan Sahas, it is found 62% workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37% workers did not know how to access the existing schemes. These is another dimension to this problem- 94% of the labourers do not have Building and Construction Workers identity card (BOCW) and 70% do not have MGNERGA job card, which makes them ineligible for availing any benefits released by the Government under BOCW Cess Act and under MGNERGA respectively. Their data also suggest that many labourers did not get avail the benefits of the schemes because they do not have bank accounts. This shows that these schemes have less chances of reaching to the vulnerable migrants.

In this period of lockdown, overcoming the coronavirus epidemic is crucial task at hand and certainly we will be able to accomplish that task. But at the same time, it is important to ensure that no individuals should be deprived of their right to dignified life. Governments should be more consciousness about the conditions of internal migrants. Directives should be brought out immediately to increase the coverage of beneficiaries of various government schemes. Unemployment allowances should be provided for all the people who lost their employment due to lockdown. Charity work done by various citizen groups and NGOs is highly commendable and along with them it is responsibility of government to ensure the welfare of internal migrants and protect their livelihoods. 

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