A state facing community transmission of coronavirus should not make it worse
W HILE the prolonged lockdown led to the flight of migrant labourers from the state in the past weeks, the opening up of business activities with the relaxation of the lockdown has encouraged some of them to return, though it cannot be said yet to be a return en masse. Over one lakh migrants hailing from different parts of the country left the state by Shramik special trains that were run by the Railways to take them to their native states. The migrant workers were not to blame for the exodus. They hoped the lockdown would not be very long, but when it was extended, they saw no point in staying on, as all economic activities had come to a halt and their employers had thrown them out of their jobs and their landlords had thrown many of them out of their rented rooms. A few establishments took care of their employees, especially of the regular employees, by giving them food and some cash to manage incidental expenses. But those on casual employment had to bear sheer misery as they found themselves jobless, penniless, hungry and on the street.
With the economic activities slowly reviving in the state, even the employers who threw out their workers have been trying to reach out to them. It is roughly estimated that around a third of the workforce engaged in construction and other developmental activities had left the state. Though the government has not yet got any official confirmation of the return of the migrants to the state, some of the employers said that the migrant workers who used to work for them were keen to return and have sounded them about their possible return. Some contractors said the migrant workers who used to be employed by them have already returned. The return of the workforce would be beneficial to the contractors as they can go ahead with the projects in hand.
The exodus of migrant workers from the state could have been reduced in terms of numbers if the state government and the employers had together set up mechanisms to assure them shelter, food and some money in hand at least for recharging their mobile phones. The abrupt announcement of a lockdown, mass retrenchment, combined with non-availability of essentials brought misery to the migrant workers. The random help that came from the government after the plight of the workers was highlighted in the media was too late and too little. Most of the employers of migrant workers avoided responsibility for providing food and succour to them. Though essential items such as bread and rice were available in the later part of the prolonged lockdown, by that time the pockets of the migrant workers were nearly empty. And even essential items were being sold at higher than usual prices, something the state government should have controlled but did not. Now that the economic activities have opened up, the employers need migrant workers to complete their projects or operate their machines or help them at their wholesale or retail business. However, it is unlikely that all the migrant workers would return so quickly.
The state government has to take foolproof steps to prevent worsening of the COVID-19 situation in the state with the mass return of the migrant workers. As the coronavirus has spread far and wide in the country, the possibility of the workers carrying the virus from their home state or during the travel cannot be ruled out. The government must make every migrant worker who returns undergo virus checks at the entry points and quarantine till their reports are out as laid down in the standard operating procedure. The employers who are going to employ or re-employ the migrant workers who return will be expected to support the implementation of the standard operating procedure regarding people coming from outside by air, train or road. The places of work should have all the measures in place in order to prevent the virus from getting any room to spread among the workers. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant finally admitted on Friday that there is a community transmission of the coronavirus in the state. The government should not make it worse by lax checks on returning migrants.