13 May 2020 20:58 IST

For migrants, the trauma continues

Migrant workers are not a vote bank; this could be why all political parties have abandoned them

We are now into the seventh week of lockdown. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after getting considerable flak for his earlier ‘niggardly’ ₹1.7-lakh crore stimulus package, came up with a much larger one on May 12, of ₹20-lakh crore which is around 10 per cent of the GDP. The details of the package are awaited but the thrust of the speech was getting the economy back on track and ‘atma nirbhartha’ — self reliance.

The one big story in these torrid weeks of lockdown, however, was the sad plight of migrant workers. Over the last decade or so, workers from States such as UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam have been migrating to States in the Western and Southern parts of the country as these States offered better job opportunities.

Hindi-speaking migrant workers are a common sight, even in a State such as Tamil Nadu. They work in manufacturing sectors, both organised and unorganised, MSMEs, and the services sector such as hotels, restaurants and petrol pumps.

Workers from these States form a major chunk of construction labour in the southern States. The first phase of lockdown, which gave Indians barely four hours to prepare for it, completely ignored the plight of migrant workers.

Too little, too late

Governments, both at the Central and State levels, were totally unprepared for the tragedy that unfolded – migrant workers ignoring all lockdown rules and trying desperately to reach their home-towns by any possible means, very often walking hundreds of miles. But even after one week of the lockdown, the governments were trying to convince the migrants to stay ‘locked down’ instead of helping them reach their homes.

It was only in early May, well into the second phase of the lockdown that the Centre considered running special trains – ‘Shramik Express’ — to ferry migrant workers back to their home States. And the irony is that by that time, industry and many State governments had started talking of ‘rebooting’ the economy and getting business activity started.

In fact, the builder lobby in Karnataka went so far as to prevail upon the State government to prevent these workers from travelling to their home States. The builders did not want to face labour shortage just when they were preparing to restart construction activity. But the Karnataka government’s decision to cancel trains predictably came in for all-round criticism and it had to backtrack on this.

Labour shortage

Now the country is in a quixotic situation. When the PM is talking about how Lockdown 4.0 will be different from the previous three episodes, with the focus on resuming economic activity, the industry and services sectors are likely to face a shortage of labour. For the vast majority of small businesses in this country, where self-employment and family labour are the norm, this may not be a problem.

For MSMEs, the construction sector (the highest employer after agriculture) and services sectors, however, migrant workers heading home just when they are restarting operations is going to be a huge headache. The ‘rebooting’ of the economy could well be stalled by major labour shortages.

This is why both the Central and State governments should have put their heads together and dealt with the issue of migrant workers in the early days of the lockdown. If the government had run these ‘Shramik Express’ trains in early April, it could have easily convinced those workers to return to the States where they were working by late May or even early June. That would have given the economic reboot a huge boost.

Total absence of social security

The sorry tale of migrant workers these past several weeks has exposed the social and economic cleavages in Indian society and polity. The migrant workers’ situation, even at the best of times, was always precarious as most of them are contract labourers with virtually ‘zero’ social and income security.

Their plight would regularly be highlighted by NGOs and academics but States were content to just pay lip service on improving their lot. Tamil Nadu started enumerating the number of migrant workers in the State but the attempt was, at best, a half-hearted one. Kerala is the only State where migrant workers enjoy some social security, and where they can access the PDS fair price shops, government hospitals and schools.

This is why Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s ‘One-nation, one ration card’ scheme, which is to be implemented June end by all States, is an eminently sensible one. This scheme will allow migrant workers to access subsidised foodgrains in any part of the country.

Migrant workers are not seen as a vote bank by any political party. So they are not wooed with ‘freebies’ during election time. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that most migrant workers do not even vote as they are far away from their home States when Assembly and general elections take place. Since postal ballots are still a dream in India, these workers will likely remain politically marginalised for the foreseeable future.

For the time being they will have to bank only on civil society’s empathy.