As India begins preparations for prospectively tackling Stage 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internal movement of its stranded migrant workers has the potential of undermining the national effort. The misery of migrants working in the informal sector is concerning, but romanticising their pain, and suffering is not the answer. Politicisation of their immediate choices is dangerous, and puts India in a deep state of vulnerability.
Deter Reverse Migration, instead of facilitating it
The impulse to leave cities, and return to villages is understandable, and well-intentioned, but the State is duty-bound to respond with care, and caution. The Raj Dharma of the Indian State, in no uncertain terms- is to enforce the lockdown in accordance with law, and simultaneously treat the under-privileged among us, with dignity, care, and compassion. The duty of State Governments is not to facilitate reverse migration, but to deter it, by providing food and residential security to those within their geographical borders.
Responsibility on “Feeder States” to Arrest Reverse Migration
From the very first day of the 21-day lockdown, many workers had chosen to march from Delhi to their villages in adjoining States. State borders are not impermeable, and therefore, it was only natural that some of them managed to cross over. In the plight of migrant workers, the media found its big story, and political parties sensed opportunity. What was earlier a sporadic movement of a few workers is today a mass reverse migration exercise, facilitated at least partly by the state-run Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses. This is unfortunate because the moment a “feeder” State lends Government support to inter-state movement, it makes reverse migration an officially acceptable norm, and therein lies India’s misfortune. The Government has to do more to earn the confidence of the migrants, and repeatedly remind them that leaving is neither advisable; nor allowed. There are important lessons to be learnt from this experience, and one can only hope that community kitchens, shelter camps, and sustenance allowances hold migrant workers in good stead; for what lies ahead for them in under-served villages is much worse, should the pandemic spread there.
Responsibility on “Receiving States” to Avert Further Spread
Whoever is stranded at the State border needs to be assisted, and cannot be deserted. Every migrant needs to be given food, and shelter. It is needless to state that social distancing norms need to be adhered to. All workers should be thoroughly tested and temporarily isolated, before allowing them full entry into far-flung villages, where the ability to respond is minimal. States with significant amount of tribal population need to especially be more careful; for the cultural heritage of the country may be at special risk. Rural India lacks the requisite medical infrastructure to respond to the virus, and there is now an overwhelming need to make testing kits available in the largely under-staffed Primary Health Centres (PHCs), and put in place COVID-19 wards in every District Hospital. The need to address capacity, and availability concerns is paramount, if the spread has to be contained.
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