From food to air tickets, this online networking tool is helping migrant workers

Information on the portal is crowd sourced, so migrants who are on the move can also update their information.
Migrant workers
Migrant workers
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News of the migrant exodus has been reported ever since the sudden lockdown was announced in March. As the lockdown kept getting extended and no work was available, migrant labourers just started walking back to their native places, in the absence of trains and bus services. The government’s apathy to the plight of the migrants was questioned on many occasions.

Unable to fully lift restrictions in these lockdowns, the government started the ‘Shramik Special’ trains on May 1, promising to ferry 36 lakh migrant labourers over the next 10 days. State-wise portals were launched to coordinate the movement of migrant labourers in batches to their respective states.

However, the process is not easy. Migrants have to register separately on two websites, one of the state they belong to and one of the state they are currently in. Nodal officers, appointed in both these states, need to approve registrations that allow them to board trains.

States decided their own criteria for information that needed to be uploaded for approval, and since these databases did not talk to each other, it was left for the hapless migrant labourers to demonstrate that they have the necessary approvals from both the states to travel. Finally, on  May 16, the Central government declared that a National Migrant Information System will be  launched to facilitate migrant movements. 

Yet, four weeks later, the portal of NMIS is not live. There are communications that have been directed by the Centre to the states to work towards a Central Dashboard as part of the National Disaster Management Authority but so far, no information is available in the public domain. The government has now claimed that 91 lakh migrants have been ferried by trains and road in this month but how many migrants are still stranded is not clear.

Gathering countrywide data is definitely a time consuming exercise and it might take the government a few weeks to bring this information together. But time is a luxury that the poor migrant labourers simply do not have. With every passing day, life becomes more miserable, food and basic essentials become dearer and hope looks bleak.

However, individuals in personal capacities and non-governmental organisations have come forward in this time of need. COVID Action Support Team or CoAST is one such initiative that aims to help migrant and vulnerable sections of the society during this lockdown period. CoAST has developed a Geographic Information System or GIS based portal that maps current location of migrants as well as their requirements. Information on the portal is crowd sourced, so migrants who are on the move can also update their information.

CoAST layers the map with other information such as government offices and officers along with details of schools, shelters, quarantine, COVID-testing and healthcare facilities as well as NGO centres in the geographical area. Working with grassroots organisations and state governments, CoAST has been able to pool requests for help, make them available to relief teams and track the progress of the work done. The team at CoAST is ensuring that data is updated in real time as much as possible so that relief efforts can be coordinated better.

Efforts to build this GIS map have been on since late March, just after the lockdown was announced, and is regularly updated with 'help-seekers' data. Communicating over email, Jagadeesh Rao, who is leading the effort, said, “It is continuously updated with features that serve the emerging needs, yet we wish we were ahead of the emerging needs.”

Since the portal is public and migrant labourers have easy access to it, it would only make sense that information about “Shramik Trains” be made available over the portal. While CoAST intends to do so and has attempted to source this information at various levels and multiple sources, this vital information seems to be a “closely kept secret” according to Jagadeesh Rao.

When asked about the progress of the National Migrant Information System, Jagadeesh confirmed that they have been in discussion with the National Disaster Management Authority since the beginning of the CoAST project in March. “In an ideal world, our servers should be talking to one other” opined Jagadeesh Rao. He also hopes that while opening up geospatial space to private players (as declared by the Finance Minister recently), the Government of India, also includes system changes that allow people to collaborate with their data, instead of working solo.

Jagadeesh Rao and his team work at the Foundation for Ecological Security, working towards ecological restoration in the country. Support for the CoAST initiative poured in from Azim Premji University, Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, LibTech India and others.

Minhaj Ameen, Coordinator at Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN), a partner organisation of the CoAST initiative, has been instrumental in not only getting the project off the ground but also managing day-to-day affairs. Speaking over a quick call, Minhaj confirmed that the CoAST tool directly connects with over 150 organisations who have their further networks (more than 300 organisations in all) that are relying on data from the tool. The data platform can be used over a mobile device and is accessible in 12 different languages.

Bindu Mohanty, who has been helping labourers in an individual capacity by using the tool, says that she came across the CoAST India initiative and realised that there were a lot of labourers in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, seeking basic necessities and help to return to their native states.

Bindu activated her own network to create a small group of around 35 volunteers from various parts of India. Working remotely, these volunteers would collect further details from ‘help-seekers’ and their needs and update them on the CoAST portal. “The government of Jharkhand too stepped in and provided details of about 6000 cases that they had on their record. Each “case”, involved a group of 30-50 individuals, employed by a factory in Chennai or other industrial towns in Tamil Nadu but were now stranded due to the lockdowns,” Bindu said in a phone interview. 

With limited financial resources at their disposal, Bindu’s team could transfer cash into bank accounts of help seekers with medical emergencies while redirecting others to a NGO or shelter nearby where basic necessities could be taken care of. The CoAST tool helped because Bindu’s team could now also connect with government machinery in all possible locations and mobilise action on the ground.

When Shramik Special services began, together with the International Justice Mission, Bindu and her team were able to get over 10000 people onboard trains to Jharkhand, Bihar and Bengal. While help-seekers thanked her for getting them onboard, Bindu also got calls about lack of food and water on these trains. The tool was an immediate option for Bindu who was able to connect with NGOs, who on one occasion “fed an entire train full of people on the Odisha border”, she says.

CoAST also helped Bindu connect with philanthropists who were more than eager to help on a case-by-case basis, rather than donate their money to a black box of a relief fund. Be it bill payments in hospitals, rent payments for temporary accommodations and even buying air tickets for patients who underwent surgeries, donors have come forward to support all causes in the few weeks that Bindu has been using the CoAST tool. 

Bindu and her team of 35 volunteers have been to help over 37000 help seekers during this period, thanks to a simple tool.

Recalling the initial hectic days, while developing the tool, Minhaj is thankful to over 200 volunteers who joined in the effort at the time of the crisis. Over the past 70 days or so, the initiative has managed to channel about Rs 10 crores of financial aid and provided relief to over one lakh help seekers through the tool. Minhaj estimates the impact of the initiative to be at least 5-10 times more. As lockdowns are being released, a lot of activity has shifted to more dynamic WhatsApp groups that are aiding migrants reach home. An estimated 500000 people have been provided travel aid through the network of organizations that CoAST connects with.

What happens to the tool then? “The job is not over. Our aim is to provide a fair and equitable life for all. We will use the tool to provide rehabilitation support to people, focus on their health and well-being, and develop sustainable employment opportunities in their native places,” he says.

When probed regarding the delay in functioning of the National Migrant Information System, Minhaj says, “We are not against the government or its efforts. We want to complement the work of the government. Funds can be made available. It is people who are the core energy and drive projects such as these. We need to figure out ways to harmonise our ideas, converge our efforts for real effects to be seen on the ground.”

Like other issues, facing the country, the pandemic too calls for collaborative effort. Are people in power willing to work this way?

Molecular Biologist by day and blogger by night, Ameya writes about genetics,microbes and technology at Coffee Table Science. He is often found on Twitter checking cat videos or new podcasts. 

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