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.
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.
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.
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.
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.