The Union home ministry has ordered the states to seal borders and quarantine people who have violated the coronavirus lockdown for 14 days. Migrants are now being stamped and a group was sprayed with disinfectant in Uttar Pradesh. Thousands of migrants across India walked to their native places after the Narendra Modi government announced the 21-day nationwide lockdown with only four hours of notice.
ThePrint asks: Mass exodus of migrants: Are they the Covid-19 lockdown violators or victims?
Any solution will involve breaking lockdown conditions, but one must look for the less calamitous way out
Former Health Secretary
When people are in distress, because of loss of jobs, wages and shelter, all of which have happened since the lockdown was announced, the only place they can go is ‘home’. And if they are prepared to walk hundreds of miles, they are obviously desperate and certainly cannot be called violators. Now, the major corporations and municipalities will have to take the responsibility of either housing and feeding the migrants, while observing physical distancing, or press buses and trains into service. Any such solution will involve a collapse of lockdown conditions, but at a time like this, one should look for the less calamitous way out.
Lockdown as a solution can be observed by the Indian middle class, which has regular salaries, a secure home space, and can afford the luxury of physical distancing. People who can conduct their daily business online are not threatened in any way. They are only facing some inconvenience. Government’s priority should be to help people who have lost jobs and homes and not brand them as lockdown violators and punish them. This is a time of terrible crisis, but we cannot lose understanding and compassion.
These migrants are violators but considering the humanitarian problem, they must be treated with empathy
T R Kakkar
Former police commissioner, Delhi
Strictly speaking, the migrants are violators but considering the humanitarian problem involved, they must be treated as people who need urgent help from the administration. This is a situation where these people who have now been rendered homeless and unemployed, who feel that they will be much safer in their villages among families, must be treated with a lot of empathy. But the administration has to also consider that these people are not allowed to traverse the length and breadth of India. They might start spreading the virus since they are mostly staying together in large groups.
The maintenance of law and order is primarily the responsibility of the states, but under the Disaster Management Act 2005, the Centre can issue directions that the DM and the SSPs have to follow. In this case, the home secretary has already passed an order that migrant labourers should not be allowed to go beyond the district/state boundaries and that authorities must take care of their food, shelter and medical needs. If their travel becomes absolutely necessary, then the district administration must make proper transport arrangements.
Being in the police services for 36 years, I can say that if the directions are clear and the responsibility lies on the district authorities, they produce wonderful results.
In the Bareilly incident, I am sure it must have been done inadvertently by someone who was overzealous, without the knowledge of the DM or SSP. One odd incident need not be highlighted so much.
Officials aware of their ineffectiveness against the wealthy overcompensate by dealing harshly with less privileged
Oommen C. Kurian
Senior Fellow & Head of Health Initiative, ORF
We may not like to admit it, but people’s access to dignity in India will always remain linked to their socio-economic status. What the state tries to achieve is facilitate this access to the less-privileged through an intricate set of rules and laws. But when the access to the legal system itself is linked to one’s socio-economic status, this may not always work.
A public health emergency like Covid-19 turns that very state ‘draconian’ by default. Public health and human rights have had a tenuous relationship historically, and the fault lines start to show more prominently during epidemics, where there is desperation all around and only the outcomes matter.
Of course the lower rung of the public health/law enforcement agencies is acutely aware of their ineffectiveness when they deal with well-off super-spreaders — like the singer in Lucknow — so they overcompensate when dealing with those potentially exposed to the virus, who also conveniently happen to be less privileged. Hence, we regularly see on media platforms our labourers and families being treated like lab animals.
All this will be tolerated now during Covid-19 times, even by senior human rights defenders, and understandably so since many are obviously from high-risk groups, and we know only outcomes matter. But just like the other Emergency, once the dust has settled, I suspect many cases of human rights violations will be filed across India.
Absurd to penalise migrants who are forced to choose possible Covid-19 over likely starvation
To cast migrants violating the nationwide lockdown as anything other than victims is to miss the point of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus – trying to limit human suffering. These populations have access to food through ration shops and the public distribution system, shelter and potential employment through schemes like MGNREGA in their villages. These essentials are now partially or totally inaccessible in metro cities like Delhi, especially for the large proportion that subsists on daily wages and has no job security.
Even in the unlikely event that the central and state governments manage to provide food for the remaining days in the lockdown, it is possible that cramped living conditions in cities will lead to a greater number of infections over time, because the idea of social distancing (WHO is increasingly using the term ‘physical distance’) is a farce in densely crowded or slum environments.
Nitish Kumar is perhaps right in saying that sending migrant workers to their natives places “will lead to a situation where putting an effective check on the spread of coronavirus will become a difficult task for all of us”. However, given the lack of viable alternatives or clarity on when the economic activity will return to normal, it is absurd to penalise those who are forced into choosing possible Covid-19 over likely starvation.
By Unnati Sharma, journalist at ThePrint