In the last few weeks, we have all been witness to harrowing, nerve-wrenching and bone-chilling images of the exodus of these marginal and “invisible” drivers of the informal economy of urban India. Indian highways emptied of most vehicles were lined with bedraggled, poor pedestrians, many carrying all their worldly belongings in bundles on top of their heads walking to their home villages, hundreds or thousands of miles away across states. The tragedy of the migrant workers in India doesn’t seem to come to an end. One is more helpless than the other. The imposition of the lockdown as a measure to contain the exponential progression of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labourers the most. The post-coronavirus recovery of the shattered world of migrants would witness diverse and multiple realities. International Labour Organization estimates are that around about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at the risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis.
The exodus of the migrants from their place of livelihood to the place of birth often alone and sometimes with the family has exposed the cruelty of lockdown. It is unfolding the major problems that stares India, which we have often taken for granted. While, as per Census 2011, the total number of internal migrants would be 450 million, the actual numbers perhaps are higher than what is captured by the census. Labours contribute to the economy by their sweat and get almost no share in proportion of their hard work. Their position is indispensable despite the advancement of technology. They are the most important part of capital development in the country. They are the heart, hand, body and soul of the development process.
What is their fault? Poverty. It makes them travel across states to earn money for their family. They just see the avenues of employment and meagre income to sustain their families and take decisions based on this basic need. The reverse exodus is also related to poverty, hunger and the need to be in their zone of comfort which forces them to take daring steps like walking for hundreds of kilometres at a stretch with bare minimum, facing the threat of virus and exhaustion. Desire to be in their own native, among their own people is as important as the desire to earn and lead hand to mouth life.
We, as responsible citizens should help to reduce their plight. But it is also difficult to act considering the norms of staying home and safe. What else can we do? Offer them lift we we find any on our way. Give them food, if that is possible. I wish Government would have plied buses and trucks throughout the highways to offer them lift or run more of Shramik Special trains and buses because the efforts of the state governments to induce them to stay at the place of work failed.
Odisha has come up with a humanitarian plan under the leadership of Shri Naveen Patnaik. He directed the police that no migrant should take the pain of walking on foot to reach his or her destination. The state government has made arrangements for transportation of migrant workers from Odisha border checkpoints to other border points nearest to the native states of the migrants. Expenditure incurred on transportation and food for the migrant workers is borne by the Chief Ministers Relief Fund.
The pressure of this reverse migration is going to be felt in the fields of agriculture and allied activity. It will put immense pressure on a system that is already fragile. We need a complete transformation of economic and administrative processes, practices and policies to enable the rural to face up to the issues that the coronavirus-induced reverse migration has thrown up. We need a charter of the rights of the working population that ensures the right to livelihood, food, security and most importantly dignity of labour. Such a charter should become the guiding principle in the post-coronavirus phase and a failure to consider the above will result in a calamity.