Labour supplying states must do what they say for migrant workers
In his ‘Mann ki baat’ radio address on Sunday Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed sympathy with the migrant labourers who have gone through hell during the lockdown. However, words of sympathy might not suffice for alleviation of their misery. They not only lost their jobs but were forced to walk on foot for hundreds of miles from the towns of their work to their home states. It was heartrending to see hungry men, women and little children walking under a murderous summer sun. Some of the women were in advanced pregnancy; a few delivered children by the roadside. While lakhs of migrants have made it to their home states enduring gruelling journeys or paying fares from whatever they had managed to save and for food enroute, there are a greater number of them still waiting to get a bus or train to reach their homes. It was only late last week that the Supreme Court stepped in and directed the central and state authorities to make arrangements for free journeys back home and also supply food during the travel period.
Having lost their sources of income the migrant workers would find it difficult to make their ends meet unless their home state authorities come to their rescue and provide them alternatives before yet their misery is made worse due to prolonged unemployment. Though the lockdown has affected workers across the globe, its impact has been too onerous for Indian workers who had to endure the longest shutdown. What added to their miseries was lack of planning on the part of central and state authorities in alleviating their hardships during the 68 days when most activities came to a standstill in the country. According to rough estimates, around 14 crore migrants were thrown jobless and homeless by the lockdown. Given the fact that the Centre and the states failed to take protective measures well in advance to keep the migrant labourers where they were at the start of the lockdown, and given the fact that they are or will be back to their states, the central and state governments have to create employment opportunities for them in their home states.
Though the poorer sections of Indian society have been enduring hardship for a long time, their plight has never been so miserable as during the lockdown. It is apparent that the authorities underestimated the impact of COVID-19 and overestimated their capacity to deal with the virus. The measures adopted for combating the spread of the virus have failed to yield the expected results, with the number of those afflicted by the disease scaling new heights every day. It is also evident that authorities failed to make plans for the poor during the prolonged lockdown. Even as the battle to arrest the spread of the virus continues, it is necessary that migrants back home quickly have sources of income before poverty takes a further toll on them. Though announcements have been made by some states, the authorities of each state should ensure that people were provided employment at the earliest without having to undergo further ordeal.
The extension of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) could put some money into the hands of the poor in the rural areas, but as the number of job seekers is high owing to the migrant workers returning home, there would be many to share the pie, and the MNREGA pie is small. The scope of generating income for the poor in the countryside through MNREGA has its limitations. The wages under MNREGA are on the lower side, and according to experts, even at full scale it will be able to accommodate one in five unemployed. The Uttar Pradesh government has tied up with four state bodies to generate employment for lakhs of people who have returned to the state. The states of Bihar and Uttarakhand too have announced schemes for employment of migrants. However, there appears to be no clarity on how the state governments would fulfill their promises to the migrant labourers, because it was the absence of employment in their native states that forced these labourers to seek jobs in other states after all. The state governments must not give false promises to the migrants.