Migrant labourers crowd stations: Activists suggest ways for govt to avoid exodus

From providing ID cards to ensuring basic necessities, activists list out several steps that the government and industries can take to help migrant labourers.
A migrant labourer along with a girl child walking in a railway station
A migrant labourer along with a girl child walking in a railway station
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For the past week, hundreds of migrant labourers are turning up every day at the Puratchi Thalaivar Dr MGR Central Railway Station in Chennai to catch a train to their hometowns. Amid buzz of another lockdown and the surge in coronavirus cases in the country, the workers, a majority from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand, fear a repeat of the sufferings they faced last year.

The workers say that they were failed by their employers during the first wave when the country was under a complete lockdown – they struggled without food and shelter, and were put under severe hardship. Now, one year has passed by, but the industries and government are yet to win back the trust of migrant labourers, who returned within a few months to work and earn a living in different states.

Activists point out that there is a lack of clarity on the number of migrant workers in the country. Even in September last year, the Ministry for Labour and Employment informed the Parliament that 11.4 million people returned to their home states during the lockdown, but it didn’t provide any details on the deaths reported among migrant workers during this period. The Ministry also said it did not have data on the job losses among migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Following this, a Parliamentary panel in February 2021 submitted that the efficacy of the various schemes, including implementation of guidelines to provide relief to migrant workers and social audit of government initiatives, were affected due to the absence of credible data on migrant workers.

However, the findings haven’t changed anything. Neither states nor the Union government has announced a stimulus package for the workers till now. The Madras High Court on Tuesday while hearing a PIL directed the state and Union governments to consider providing economic stimulus packages to private and unorganised sector workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

With no relief initiatives, migrant workers have once again started to return home and the resulting exodus could send another ripple across the country, fear activists working with migrant labourers. The activists urge industries and governments to take immediate steps to stop the migrant crisis at the very beginning.

Efforts to be taken on war footing

In 2020, the migrant exodus in India made global headlines when many people started walking back to their homes during the lockdown covering thousands of kilometres while several others allegedly died on the way due to starvation and accidents. Images of a toddler trying to wake up his dead mother, a migrant labourer, surfaced from a railway station in Bihar and other such visuals shook the country.

In order to avoid similar incidents, activists say that an extensive support network should be created among migrant labourers, and district-level migrant labour cells should be started to guide them. The workers should be ensured food and shelter if the government and industries want them to continue their stay in the state.

Sujata Mody, president of Penn Thozhilalargal Sangam, said, “The industries should ensure that they provide wages, shelter and food to workers despite the crisis. They should also start vaccinating their employees and create an environment where they feel safe from COVID-19.”

“On the part of the government, both the originating and receiving state should have a record of the migrant workers,” Sujata said, adding, “Even during the first wave we saw that the workers were not ready to listen to us but were functioning as a network within themselves. So, the government should come forward and give each migrant labourer an identity card and set up a cell to listen to and address their grievances.”

One of the grievances of migrant workers in the first wave was differential treatment and the stigma against them. It is important to curb the stigma, said Venkat from the Chennai Citizens COVID Fund for Migrant Labour.

“There is a stigma against the migrant workers because of which they are unable to freely opt for medical services. We should try to curb the stigma, and extend medical and mental health support along with providing services in their languages. They should also be given assurance on rent cancellation for their stay,” he said.

At the same time, the government should also ensure basic wages like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA), said Sujata.

However, both social workers said that another complete lockdown will upset the workers and create panic among them. Increasing transport services without opting for a complete lockdown is the only way this can be handled, they said.

‘Increase transport and avoid complete lockdown’

Learning from the past, the activists advised against a complete lockdown that restricts the movement of the workers. Sujata said, “There should be no stoppage of trains since it will upset the workers. They should be able to travel whenever they want, only unnecessary travel should be stopped.”

Likewise, the government should also bring in rules that will encourage economic activity but curb the spread of COVID-19. They should think of alternatives to reduce crowding and ensure physical distancing, she said. “Also, the workers cannot endure another lockdown as the first wave has already wiped out all their savings. Announcement of a complete lockdown will only create panic and make the workers rush to catch trains. So instead of curbing transport, the government should increase transport to avoid crowding and sensitise the workers,” she said.

Pointing out the same, Venkat said, “The government should try to avoid a lockdown. Even if there is a lockdown, train services should be permitted because a sudden lockdown announcement creates clusters at stations and cancelling trains could lead to starvation deaths.”

“The workers should be mobilised, provided a support network, permitted to leave if they want, and treated with respect and attention,” he said.

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