Migrant Workers Plight Now More Complex Than It Was

Raman Swamy

As the first phase of lockdown ended on April 14, it was known to all that an extension of the 21-day period was almost certain.  The Centre had given enough hints and even many State chief ministers had asked for it. It is therefore no surprise that the lockdown will remain in place and continue till May 3 to contain the spread of Covid-19 outbreak.

But for migrant labourers this extension has come as a cruel blow.  They have been stranded for three weeks in States like Maharashtra and had been hoping against hope for some relaxation in rail passenger transport and temporary permission to cross state borders so that people like them would be able to return to their hometowns in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. 

It was not to be.  Instead, there was the sad sight of thousands of migrant labourers gathered at a Mumbai railway station in the desperate hope of going home.  (The plight of those defiantly occupying roads in Gujarat's Surat is a far more agonizing story).  

In Mumbai the migrants' hopes of finding special trains that would take them on their way to their home States were not borne out.  Eventually they had to be "dispersed" - as the official jargon put it - because by gathering and crowding together at Bandra station they were coming close physical contact with each other thereby violating the “Social Distancing” stipulation, that is regarded as the First Rule in the age of  coronavirus and which is a cardinal sin to break. 

They had to go back to the labour camps set up for their stay in Mumbai, with the authorities trying hard to explain what happened and why.  The Maharashtra Government’s Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said it could have been a misunderstanding - "The migrant workers may have wrongly thought the Prime Minister had ordered opening of State borders".

Whatever the reasons, there were photographs and videos in the social media showing hundreds of Mumbai policemen trying to tell the crowd of workers that the lockdown had not been lifted and that Covid-19 is still a serious concern.  At one stage the police resorted to a lathi charge to finally disperse the crowd.

The sights and scenes were sad for another reason - till now Mumbai and indeed Maharashtra had been relatively free of scenes of migrant labourers pouring out on to the streets as they did in some other States, notably on the Delhi-UP border.  The Maharashtra government had even earned a pat on the back three weeks ago for humane and efficient management of the migrant worker situation.  Labour camps had been rapidly set up, with basic amenities for food, shelter and sanitation.  

In addition, at least a few big and small companies had responded positively to the three-party alliance government’s requests to avoid heartless lay-offs and termination of employment - some companies offered basic support even to those not on their payroll.   

In the meantime, several NGOs came forward to set up a network of non-profit organisations to organise the logistics to ensure essential supplies to those in need.  

Overall, it was a story that was humanitarian as well as poignant, a story in which no single party or individual political leader could grab the credit, but was indeed a collective group effort by a cross section of concerned citizens to provide succour to fellow human beings from distant States.  

After the unfortunate incidents on April 14, it was left to the Chief Minister's son, young Aaditya Thackarey, who is a cabinet minister himself, to react instinctively to what happened.  These migrant workers, he said, are not demanding food, water and shelter – they just want to go home.

In a twitter post he said:  "The current situation at Bandra Station is now dispersed. Even the rioting in Surat is a result of the Centre’s inability to take a decision on arranging a way back home for migrant labour. They don’t want food or shelter; they want to go back home".

This comment was clearly from the heart.  It was retracted soon enough.  Because some time later the young Thackeray posted another tweet which had a very different message - “The Centre has taken immediate cognizance of the issue and is assisting the State actively”.

He explained further - “We understand the Catch 22 situation that the Centre and States face.  The Central ministers have to keep in mind many other factors including the safety of the people in the home states of the migrants". 

That is the real tragedy of the migrant workers' predicament - their home State chief ministers do want them back at this point of time. 

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Apr 16, 2020

Raman Swamy

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