Daily wagers leaving Delhi-NCR for their native villages on foot on Yamuna Expressway on 27 March 2020
Daily wagers leaving Delhi-NCR for their native villages on foot on Yamuna Expressway on 27 March 2020 | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
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India’s treatment of its migrant population has been a disgrace. We must redeem ourselves by admitting our failures and devising policy approaches that are sensitive, humane and respectful of individual freedom and dignity.

Much of the blame on this issue that was directed at the Narendra Modi government immediately after the lockdown was unfair. The nationwide lockdown had to be imposed quickly and not every scenario could have been catered for. Sure, the government’s antennae failed to pick up the risk that millions of migrants would make a beeline for their homes. But as far as one can tell, few outside experts, activists or mediapersons had flagged it as an important factor ahead of the lockdown. So the Union and state governments had to react to the unfolding human tragedy, which they did to the level their administrative capacities allowed.

That was then. After several weeks of lockdown, you would have thought that the Union and state governments had adequate time and warning to plan and implement measures to better manage the movement of migrants. Yet the manner in which the special ‘Shramik Express’ trains have been implemented demonstrates that many of our governments neither have the political sensitivity nor the administrative structures to service our migrant population.


Also read: Viral images show MP labourers ‘quarantined’ in toilet, but BJP says it’s not what it seems


Migrants & expats: Unequal citizens 

The Modi government did well to arrange for trains to take stranded migrants back home once administrations across India had figured out how to deal with the outbreak. Those who argue that such trains could have been arranged earlier do not account for the fact that it takes time for local administrations to be capable of managing the influx of inter-state migrants.

What is unfathomable though is the fact that Indian Railways expected migrants to pay the fare — including a Rs 50 premium — to travel back home. At a time when private hospitals are expected to treat patients for free, when price caps have been imposed on laboratory testing and even hand sanitisers, when private employers are being asked to bear the cost of salaries, the government-owned Indian Railways is unwilling to waive the expenses of a few trains. I am sure we will get ‘clarifications’ in the coming days, but a notification says that the local state government authority “shall collect the ticket fare and hand over the total amount to the Railways”.

After Congress president Sonia Gandhi announced that her party will foot the bill, the Modi government declared that the Union government subsidises 85 per cent of the railway passenger fare and it is the remaining that will be paid by the state governments. While a few state governments paid the entire ticketed fare, in many cases it was borne by passengers themselves or by charities and civil society groups on their behalf.

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Railways might well have contributed Rs 151 crore to the PM-CARES fund, but it would have been more efficient and appropriate for them to waive the passenger fare entirely. India rightly takes pride in evacuating its citizens from war and disaster zones around the world, including during the current pandemic. We rightly do not ask our expatriate citizens to pay the full cost for the trip back home. The coronavirus pandemic is a disaster and the reason to help migrants get back to the safety of their homes is humanitarian. There is abundant cause for the Indian state to pay for it, not least when it owns airlines, railways and bus companies, and even if it didn’t.


Also read: MGNREGA, skill-based work — options states are weighing to help returning migrant workers


Why make migrants pay

There could be three policy reasons to ask migrants to pay for the journey.

First, providing free long-distance transport will create incentives for the marginal migrant to go back home, leading to raising the demand for tickets on a limited supply of trains. Well, the answer to that is to run more trains.

Second, to discourage migrants from leaving so that the economic revival is faster. This is unconscionable for it treats migrants as instruments, not full citizens. Migrants are no less capable of exercising judgement over their personal affairs as bureaucrats, political leaders or columnists, and if this means economic challenges, then that is the price of the society we have become.

Third, their reverse exodus back might spread the virus to rural areas in states that have so far been less affected by the pandemic. This is reasonable but no longer tenable after six weeks of lockdown. It is incumbent on every state government to get its act together for surveillance, quarantine, isolation and contact tracing. The argument that local administration is not prepared cannot have a perpetual shelf life.

Why is it that Indian society does not respect and uphold the individual freedom of our migrant fellow citizens? One reason — and I am guessing — might be because we do not think individual freedom, including our own, is of utmost value. We are okay with families, communities and governments abridging our freedom, often for a “good cause”. A citizen who does not prize his/her own liberty is unlikely to champion that of others.


Also read: Real social distancing: Special planes for India’s rich, police lathis for working-class poor


A mechanism for migrant welfare

So what would a policy that respected the liberty and dignity of the migrant worker look like?

Returning home at this time must be treated as a humanitarian cause. All mass public transport facilities — buses and trains — should be made available free of cost to any migrant who wishes to travel to a place of safety. If states where they work want them to stay back to sustain their economies, then they should be offered financial incentives. Workers can then compare the costs of going home against the benefits of staying back and decide for their own. In fact, giving them two-way tickets can work both as an incentive and a signal that they are wanted in their work places.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fact that India’s politics has not kept pace with the consequences of our economic growth in yet another area. Migrants have ended up political orphans — they are outside their home states and out of mind of those governments. They remain outsiders in the states where they work and local politicians do not consider them as “us”. Very few state governments seem to care enough about them to be bothered to treat them with dignity, even in this pandemic situation.

The big reform required is for state governments to set up departments to manage both the migrants they host, and the migrants they send. NRIs caught in a crisis can expect to be evacuated because there is a Ministry of External Affairs that is responsible for their welfare. We need a similar mechanism for the welfare of internal migrants, and make state politicians and bureaucrats accountable.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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9 Comments Share Your Views

9 COMMENTS

  1. Doesn’t the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) coordinate logistics of people inside India? Why create more government when you already have people who coordinate movement and safety of citizens in cases of disaster, natural calamities, civil uprisings, etc.? What is Amit Shah doing at this time? Please hold these leaders accountable!!!

  2. The requirement of a Ministry for migrants is a must for all state and the central Govt. It is required for
    1. To provide help to migrants in emergencies such as these,
    2. To provide guidance and help in getting id proof, housing, job, rations, medical help etc to incoming migrants. They need to maintain and project the type of skills required, and
    3. To follow up on the migrants and ensure their welfare.

    The first problem here would be the left liberals who will shout loss of liberty, identity tracking etc etc.

    Print being part of such a grouping should come out clearly on what it recommends rather than whine later.

  3. “Much of the blame on this issue that was directed at the Narendra Modi government immediately after the lockdown was unfair”.
    Seriously?
    Nothing could have summed up the writer’s bias more explicitly. Instead of the PM who announced a shocking, reckless late night lockdown, he blames the experts for not having alerting the govt! Really? How far would you go to defend an inept decision? In fact, the writer should not be so short-sighted to believe that there was none who warned that the unorganised workers would be worst hit much before the lockdown. Just because it does not fall before the writer’s eye does not mean others were lying drunk. And who’s exactly supposed to have an inkling of the aftermath: the announced to or the announcer? Please, don’t let the logic desert you so completely.

    • Thank you… these are my thoughts too. I was in India during demonitisation which was incredibly difficult for those who already lived near the poverty line. I can’t believe Modi would repeat the same scenario for the pandemic without taking better precautions for the migrant workers! He’s so full of bravado… then fails to follow through with effective implementation.

    • You have hit it right. The Takshashila Institute,, from where Nitin Pai hails may not be a frontal for the Hindutv think tank, but it clearly is a close relative. Imagine blaming state Governments, who are cash strapped, to bear the cost of Railways, a Central Govt undertaking. Who better than Modi Stooge Piyush Goel could have directed free travel? As such he waited for Saheb or mota bhai to give a green signal that never came. And Modi got unprecedented majority with help of these labour votes. During, 2019 general elections, these very labourers were transported in buses and trains to their native to vote. The ground soldiers of BJP in in migrant states like Gujarat did the job then. Mr.Pai if Modi did not know what migrant workers are to an industrial state say Gujarat, where he rule for 13 years before going to Delhi , no other expert can know better. DO NOT DEFEND MODI HERE,

  4. What is Mukesh Ambani, sitting on tonnes of obscene money, doing to help the hapless migrants. Shekhar Gupta, undoubtedly a fawning fan of the honcho, is still promoting pieces on this man’s economic derring do. Why so???

  5. Modi has recently re dedicated the MEA to herding Indians Abroad. But re dedicating the Home Ministry to Indians within India may be too much of a change for the Colonial-Communist Police State?

  6. This entire handling of the issue of migrant workers and other daily wage earners is a saga of lack of any planning on the part of the Central Government, followed by utter mismanagement. Modi Government’s priority lay elsewhere, and the media , including the Print, is not asking the questions that it should have asked long ago. These hapless citizens of India – simply because they are poor and are not part of our “diaspora” for whom the best treatment is reserved – are being treated as dirt, to say the least. The same Sevak, who is ever ready to invoke Swami Vivekananda in everything, has forgotten all about the great Swami’s exhortation that these people are the living gods we must serve. For what purpose is the government collecting huge sums of money from the corporates, and by arm twisting whosoever it can, if it cannot feed these people on whom the economy moves? And most unfortunate part of the saga is that even the Supreme Court of India feels that depriving the poor of their livelihood and then failing to provide them with the minimum wage is not denying them their constitutional right to liefe! What has happened to the conscience of this country?

  7. Whereas the Migrants are within India under custody of Indian states , NRI’s were not … or Indians stranded in outside were not under safe custody of the India. So why are you making this as an issue?

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