"Marenge toh gaon mein hi marenge" said a determined Ramesh as he walked down a highway in Gurgaon in late March with his wife and two small children. The family had just set off for their village, 450 km away in Madhya Pradesh because they did not think they would survive a 21-day lockdown with no source of income. 45 days, two extensions, a disposed-of petition on wage payment for migrant workers, and 958 relief orders later, many like Ramesh and his family are on the road, trying to make their way home because not much has changed for them since the lockdown began.
The lockdown has inflicted unimaginable misery on migrant workers who were already struggling to make a living in the cities to which they had moved. The workers were left to fend for themselves without wages by their uncaring employers and absconding contractors; the government failed to ensure enough access to sufficient food or rations. So the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) order on April 29 allowing the movement of migrants kindled the hopes of stranded workers wanting to return home. Instead, what has been thrown at them is a slew of conflicting orders and announcements, unhelpful helplines, complicated portals and an entirely opaque system of scheduling trains and assigning priority for travel. The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), which has provided relief to over 18,000 workers who have reached out for help since the beginning of the lockdown, has also been trying to assist workers who wish to return home. Navigating the maze of orders and portals has been a nightmare even for us.
One of the first things a few states did was to set up portals where the stranded workers could register to travel to their home states. Not surprisingly, the process for registration is as varied as the number of states! There is no clarity on whether the workers have to fill forms of their home states, or states to which they have migrated or both. Some forms were entirely in English, or in English and the local language of the state in which the migrants were stranded. But the majority of workers hail from Hindi-speaking states such as Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Some portals allow only individuals to register - not as families or in groups - while others had limitations on how many could register using a single mobile number. Adding to the complexity were requirements for ID with specifications of size (MB) and format (PNG, JPG). There were long lists of terms and conditions with instructions on medical screening prior to being allowed to travel and the need to get approvals from local officials. OTPs to register, SMS to track for confirmations, and e-pass expiry timelines were the other complications. Portals of a few states had captchas to enter-one absurd example is where the person registering had to identify the squares in a grid that had palm trees! Uttarakhand also mandated the downloading of the Aarogya Setu app, mired in controversy over security issues, in order to register. If by some chance, the worker was finally successful in registering, there was no information on train schedules or fares.
To ask clarificatory questions, SWAN volunteers have systematically made calls to nodal officers in charge of travel arrangements of stranded workers in different states and union territories. The calls were made to clarify the application process for travel, train schedules, costs and how the intimation for travel approved will be made to the worker. Of 60 calls to nodal officers May 3 and 5, after the lockdown was extended, only two were answered. Of these, one officer directed us to a grassroots organisation that was preparing a list of workers who wanted to travel. Repeated calls have shown the futility of accessing the helplines. The phone lines are busy, switched off, continue ringing with no answer, or the calls are cut off. For some other numbers, the service itself is unavailable. A few weeks ago, workers in hunger and distress were desperately calling helpline numbers circulated by the government for rations with no success. Nothing seems to have changed in the context of travel helplines either.
The official flip-flop on migrant travel has only unleashed further chaos. First at the centre, there were "clarificatory" orders such as the one issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on May 3 saying that movement was allowed only for people who had been stranded away from home just before the lockdown - and did not extend to those who had moved out for work much earlier. The Karnataka government went a step further, cancelling all trains solely to appease the lobby of builders and contractors who were worried that the return of workers to their home states would adversely impact the construction sector. A public outcry resulted in the government reversing the decision.
Much like us ordinary citizens, it seems that officials in charge of coordinating migrant travel are just as confused. In many places, civil society organisations are compiling a list of migrants that want to go home and submitting these to officials. With lists being further compiled in police stations, through helpline numbers, and online portals, even officials were unsure which of these were "verified". With the total lack of transparency over train schedules and whether lists submitted to officials would actually be honoured, in one particularly tragic and absurd case, a train was cancelled because the necessary number of migrants, unclear about its details, did not show up. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the desperation of workers, fraud forms promising travel assistance are being circulated by the unscrupulous and exorbitant ticket fares are being charged.
This is a situation screaming for coordinated action which can be facilitated by the centre. The irony here is that when a decentralised approach to problem-solving is necessary, there is excessive centralisation and subsequent paralysis, but when a complex situation involving inter-state travel by lakhs of migrant workers needs clear guidelines and coordinated action, the centre is absent. Or perhaps the total lack of planning and coordination are wilful acts to thwart travel of migrants by both the central and state governments.
The Ministry of Home Affairs finally issued an eight point Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on 11th May which is vague and highly insufficient to address the current mess. Amongst its many gaps, first, it does not detail how online and offline registrations will be coordinated. Second, the logistics and the basis for allotment of passengers to trains remains unclear. Third, there is no protocol for informing workers about their application status and travel plans. In fact, it doesn't even specify any mechanism to estimate the number of trains required. Fifth, it specifies only 'e-passes' and does not provide any offline registration protocol.
Unfortunately, it is already too late. But some immediate steps need to be taken to ensure that migrants who wish to return can do so safely and with dignity. Travel for migrants needs to be coordinated at the centre in consultation with the state governments. Further, there needs to be a single portal for registration and clear guidelines that will enable multiple departments in different states involved in facilitating travel-health, railways, police, etc. - to synchronise their efforts.
(Anindita Adhikari, is a PhD candidate at Brown University and Seema Mundoli is a faculty at the Azim Premji University. Both volunteer with the Stranded Workers Action Network.)
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