The migrants crisis will not be redressed without community participation

| Updated on May 20, 2020

It is time to shun an over-centralised approach. People’s representatives and civil society organisations must be part of the strategy to fight Covid-19

Following her stimulus pronouncements, the Finance Minister has observed that municipal/local bodies as well as the State and Central governments should concern themselves with enumeration and welfare of the migrant population. The concern is valid, given the chaos that ensued soon after the imposition of a remarkably strict lockdown through April. Surely, the government had not accounted for the possibility, or sheer numbers, of migrants taking to the roads. During that period, the Centre issued a spate of notifications, each being not only at variance with the other but also quite unmindful of the government’s own data analysis on the migrant population. Consider the May 1 decision to permit the Railways to run special trains for the migrants that followed the April 29 notification to allow only inter-State bus travel for the stranded migrants. Only on April 1, the MHA, to stem mass movement, issued guidelines to “strictly implement lockdown measures”. A day prior to that, the Government counsel told the Supreme Court that it had ensured that “nobody is on the road” while in a simultaneous affidavit, the MHA maintained that “…the migrant workers travelling barefoot or otherwise in large numbers inevitably and unknowingly defy the social distancing norm… there is extreme and most likely possibility of their carrying Covid-19 infection in them in rural India and infecting the rural population...” Hence, data stocktaking is certainly in order.

In fact, given the data and insights readily available, such flip-flops in decision-making are inexplicable. A 2017 report of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Working Group on Migration is unambiguous in its analysis of the trend, scale and sectoral employment levels of migrants, especially in metros. In Delhi, for instance, the National Sample Survey 64th Round concluded that as many as 43 per cent of Delhi’s population are migrants and over half of them come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The trend is similar for Mumbai. The report details the experience of inter-State cooperation for ensuring portability of benefits to inter-State migrants. The legal and administrative frameworks required for social protection and access to public services as well as the need for panchayat level documentation of internal migrants have been spelt out. Such data should have been referred to by involving a larger set of decision-makers.

Indeed, public representatives — from the level of the panchayats to State Legislatures and Parliament — have urged the Centre to adopt a more consultative approach during the pandemic. The Finance Minister has finally recognised the need for participatory governance and demand-based, self-selecting programmes such as MGNREGA, which minimise scope for exclusion error. It is, therefore, time to shun an over-centralised approach. People’s representatives and civil society organisations must be part of the strategy to fight Covid-19. Equally important, such institutions need to be financially empowered to execute such decisions. The Centre needs to walk its talk on co-operative federalism.

Published on May 20, 2020

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