While the central government dithers between hubris and disarray during the time of COVID-19, the saga of troubles for migrants continues.
It's been almost 60 days since the initial 24-hour lockdown was announced by the PM and extended by three weeks by many states suo moto announcing longer time frames. What remains constant is the confusion in policy and priorities. Without a clear roadmap communicated to the public, the centre remains reactive rather than pro-active, inconsistent in scale of action and severely deficient in managing the fallout of the lockdown, especially on vulnerable sections such as migrant workers.
While India had rightly deployed a very strict regime of lockdown, potentially avoiding mass infection in the early stages, there seems no signs of the infection curve peaking, contrary to the government's own predictions. The initial support for the lockdown, demonstrated by a show of clapping and lighting of diyas, is fast melting into confusion dotted with Reds and Greens signifying Yellow.
What clearly comes out is the fear of the otherwise infallible bureaucracy, which was most comfortable in enforcing the lockdown during the initial phase but appears non-plussed now when millions of migrant workers want to return. Faced with the undaunting task of transporting, quarantining and then testing them, it seems that the general view of delaying the inevitable return seems to be the consensus.
Unable to comprehend the simple fact that the lockdown can only be effectively lifted once the migrants are allowed to return, the centre remains confused about the mode, scale and timing. Oscillation between "Trains vs no Trains" in the world of fast-changing Reds and Oranges with tickets to be paid by migrant workers themselves vs state sponsors has added to the muddled responses of the Govt.
Desperate and scared, migrants workers have patiently waited for the initial lockdown to be lifted so they can return home. Now, faced with the unpredictable volatility of the situation, confusion in policy and an administration that appears to be increasingly focused on seeking to protect the ever-changing policy regime, the return for these migrants remains a distant dream.
Let's be clear - it is the constitutional and fundamental right of migrant workers to be able to return to their homes and the state is obliged to facilitate the same by providing necessary transportation. These are the vulnerable sections of the society who have largely been left to fend for themselves - in certain cases, exploited by their employers who didn't pay salaries or provide basic amenities - during the lockdown period. Now, after the partial lifting of the lockdown, fearing a mass exodus of the workforce, the same employers are creating obstacles to their return. Karnataka had allegedly cancelled all trains out on the request of the builders' lobby; the controversial order was rescinded shortly after. Maybe if the employers had ensured basic amenities for and safety of their workforce, this situation wouldn't have arisen. It's ironical that the much-awaited recognition of the migrant workers' contribution to the Indian economy comes at such a great cost to themselves.
"Thabira Behera" from Biripali village in Balangir district has been stranded in Mumbai, along with 200 other boys from his village, since the lockdown. Apart from immediate relief from some personal friends, there's very little I have been able to do for them except act as a counsel. They have got a medical fitness certificate to travel from the doctor after paying Rs 500 each and braving long congested lines for hours. The 1,200 boys in Mumbai from Balangir alone that I know of applied for bus and then subsequently train passes before the Odisha High Court put a spanner in their journey to Odisha. The court has ordered that any migrant seeking to return has to test negative for Coronavirus before being allowed to embark on the journey home. Every time I speak to these boys in Mumbai, I can sense the increasing panic and frustration their voices.
The Supreme Court has today stayed or suspended the High Court order. The High Court doesn't seem to realize that with the limited testing capacity in the country, testing lakhs of workers before they're allowed to board the train is virtually impossible and may take months. And who's to guarantee that the same workers, once tested and cleared to go home, won't contract the infection on their journey?
Faced with the daunting task of reopening the economy, different states have had varied responses. The common thread in all these responses has been one of fear and uncertainty. Devoid of grassroot feedback from political avenues, the bureaucratic structure of decision-making is being beaten into a slow paralysis. The lack of credible state-run data by the government of India will overshadow the reality of a low mortality rate so far. As we continue to stigmatize returning migrant workers and keep creating obstacles for their return, they continue to grow scared and desperate.
Hordes of unmonitored migrant workers have walked, cycled and smuggled themselves in attempts to get home, leading to deaths and despair. While governments dithers in making a clear decision, this will continue and possibly lead to increase in spread of infection at home. No decision is without risks and consequences. Yet the losses will be much greater, both economically and in terms of human lives, if the state continues to walk the path of caution. A time to graduate from "Mann ki Baat" to "Tann & Dhan ki Baat" is here like never before. The political leadership needs to reinvent itself from confined definitions of "play it safe" policy-making to one of taking well-informed and calculated risks. Will the Indian state rise to the occasion?
(Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo is a second-time sitting Member of Parliament from Bolangir in Odisha and a prominent leader of the Biju Janata Dal.)
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