Migrant Worker Exodus Is No Confidence Vote Against Centre

Spraying chemicals on migrant workers to sanitize them as in Uttar Pradesh. Locking them up in a shed as in Bihar. Opening temporary jails for them as in Haryana. Herding them into ill-equipped quarantine centers across national highways. A Home Ministry circular invoking the penal provisions of the National Disaster Management Act to imprison such defaulters. India has shamed itself in its utterly inhuman treatment of migrant workers - jobless, hungry, without shelter, trying to get home to deal with the wreckage of their lives caused by an abrupt lockdown. As one of the workers, exhausted after a long trek from Haryana, said, "Why don't they shoot us, that's all that's left."

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Migrants being sprayed with disinfectants in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh

Is the Modi Government so clueless about the social economic reality of crores of Indians that it thought it could just declare a lockdown, implement it in four hours and people would be in a position to stay within the lakhsman rekha drawn by the Prime Minister outside every home? What is home? For lakhs of migrant workers in Delhi, it is sharing small rooms with fellow migrants as tenants in slums or at construction work sites or in the premises of the small dhabas (eateries) where they work or even within shuttered shops. Once all these places of work were shut, thousands of workers had no alternative, driven by the real fear of hunger, to step across the PM's lakshman rekha to start the trek home. The Economic Survey of Delhi puts the numbers of migrant workers at around 1.2 million, but no one knows for sure, since there are no proper household surveys done in the recent past. It could be much higher. Even the census does not have proper assessments of the numbers of migrant workers. If one takes the entire National Capital Region, the numbers would go up by another million.

What prevented the government from giving a few days' notice before the lockdown? It is not as though this was a demonetization measure which demanded secrecy. This was a measure for the public good to ensure control of the danger of community transmission of the Coronavirus. It required the full cooperation of the public. Across the world, countries have declared similar lockdown with prior notice of between one to three days. Why did the Prime Minister have to wait till 8 pm to announce the lockdown, why not in the morning, why not the night before? In his first address broadcast on national TV, he had indicated the lockdown plan - so why could it not have been announced then? The way it was done reflects an authoritarian style associated with this government.

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Lakhs of migrants were left stranded in different parts of the country after a 21-day nationwide lockdown was announced

It affects not just the lakhs of workers who are being treated as though they are criminals, but heightens the dangers of the coronavirus spreading because of lack of precautionary measures. Given the inhuman treatment they have been subjected to, it is more than likely that the workers would be too scared to make a report if they are suffering from a fever or any other symptoms. The dismally low figures of testing means that not only are the dangers of transmission ever-present but the scale of infection may not even be known until it is too late.

Instead of taking responsibility, the central government is making a scapegoat of some officers of the Delhi government and wrongly punishing them, including the Additional Secretary in the Transport Department, for the large number of workers who had gathered at the Anand Vihar bus terminal on March 28th and 29th. The officer reportedly had organised buses for sending them across the border to UP where they were headed. What else should she have done? The UP government too had organised some buses to take them onwards. Will the UP Chief Minister be sacked?

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Thousands of migrant workers crowded at Delhi's Anand Vihar Bus Terminal

The central government notification to seal all borders after this tragedy unfolded, also states that no tenants will have to pay rent and that all salaries will be paid by employers for a month without any deduction. If the government were serious about this, surely it should have been announced before the exodus started. Who will ensure its implementation? Under the so-called labour reforms pushed through by the government, the machinery for implementing payment of wages has been more or less destroyed. When landlords do not even sign papers allowing their tenants to give their addresses for ration cards, which workers will believe that they will not have to pay rent to the landlord for a month? Clearly it is the government, if it wants to instil confidence in the workers that they will be looked after, that will have to cover the amount as is being done in several other countries. The earlier so-called package for the poor announced by the Finance Minister did not inspire confidence among those for whom it was supposedly intended. The 1.7 lakh crore rupees amount announced is more repackaging and notional than real.

At around 35,000 crores, the direct cash transfer is the lowest in the world. The large number of unorganized sector workers, including migrant workers, have been excluded. Their long march home was a no-confidence vote in this package offered by the government. Clearly the centre needs to add many more dimensions including a less selective cash transfer of a minimum of 5,000 rupees each through Jan Dhan and MNREGA accounts to cover the three weeks of the lockdown.

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Heartbreaking visuals showed many migrants trying to cover hundreds of kilometres of journey on foot

The other aspect of sealing all borders is how it will affect the movement of essential goods inter-state. Although the central government has expanded its list of essential goods, in fact the sealing of borders has led to a large pileup of trucks on national highways. Every state is dependent on the other for essential supplies. Sealing of borders should not lead to to a crisis in this transportation. Already, prices of essential commodities are hitting the roof. The centre should ensure this blocking of supplies is removed.

In this context, it also needs to do much more to strengthen the good initiatives taken by state governments, some of which are for more effective than what the centre has announced. This requires grants to the states. The Disaster Management Act, which is being used for punitive measures like the imprisoning of workers, also has a clause for fund transfers to state governments. The centre must strengthen the capacity of states by helping them with fund transfers as mandated by the Act. The government of Kerala, which has proved to be an inspiring example of people-centered initiatives in dealing with the Coronavirus crisis, has repeatedly asked the centre for permission to it to increase the limits of the market borrowing, waiving the conditions of the FRBM Act. But it has not received this sanction. Now, the central government has set up a trust in the name of the Prime Minister. Why such a Trust should be required despite the existence of the PM's Relief Fund is highly questionable. Moreover, it will centralise such "donations" with no provisions to share the funds with states. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has notified that CSR funds can be used in activities to fight the Coronavirus. The notification should include a clause that companies can also contribute to efforts being made by state governments in this area. It is also essential for the centre to develop a mechanism of more consultation with states so that they can all learn form each other's experience.

At a time of a health emergency, it is all the more necessary to use the Indian constitution as a reference for actions. Federalism and the constitutional provisions for states to have a fair share in national revenue is one such issue. The other is democracy and the equal status of all citizens. India's unity, so crucial in the battle to save India's people from Coronavirus, will be strengthened if the government of India would keep the democratic and federal character of the constitutional framework in mind when taking decisions which affect the whole country.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

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