Reverse migration of workers raised new concerns

| Updated on March 29, 2020

Hordes of workers clogging sealed State borders reflects the government’s poor grasp of migrant labour issues

The Home Ministry’s announcement on Sunday evening to seal inter-State and inter-district borders, following the appalling exodus of thousands of workers from the Capital, underscores the lack of prior preparation in implementing the three-week nationwide lockdown. Now, the workers who have already left Delhi for their homes in neighbouring States will be quarantined for 14 days in their respective State. It is inexplicable that the Centre did not foresee the current exodus, triggered by panic and desperation, of Delhi’s informal workforce when it made its surprise decision on March 24. This has, in effect, led to a massive dilution of its lockdown measure to contain the virulent coronavirus. Steps such as providing for basic needs and ensuring that landlords do not evict tenants for at least a month could have been decided upon before the March 24 announcement. The chaos and angst could have been minimised, with the State administrations getting some time to put necessary welfare and law and order systems in place. It is hoped that the remaining period of the lockdown will not impose a disproportionate burden on the weaker sections of society. Ameliorative measures announced under the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Yojana must be bolstered if necessary.

However, this lapse in implementation also underscores a larger problem: of the informal, migrant workforce not being effectively covered under any welfare or other forms of State protection. The Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, spells out the rights of unorganised sectors and the duties of contractors and the State. The more recent Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, an outcome of the report prepared by National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, is by all accounts a watered-down piece of legislation which has not been seriously implemented. These laws must be strengthened. An important reform measure that brooks no delay is the implementation of the ‘one nation one ration card’ scheme, which could arguably have contained this fear of the future as well as the sudden descent to hunger. According to the Economic Survey 2016-17: “The first-ever estimates of internal work-related migration using railways data for the period 2011-2016 indicate an annual average flow of close to 9 million people between the states.” This population falls between the cracks of schemes announced by the Centre and the States.

The exodus from Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Valsad and Jamnagar seems to have subsided. However, this “urban avalanche” simultaneously reveals the scale of poverty and fragility of the lives of urban poor. Visuals of jeans-clad men with their backpacks walking on the highways may not correspond to the stereotypes about the poor. They underscore the desperate need for India’s planners to understand that the poverty line can no longer be defined just in terms of food energy intake or asset possession.

Published on March 29, 2020

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