The migrant dilemma: Life vs livelihood vs economy

When migrants poured in thousands at bus depots and outside railway stations in Delhi and Mumbai in March and April or took to highways leading to their home state, they feared for their lives.

Novel coronavirus outbreak threatened their lives in their congested rented homes in big cities. Social media rumours announcing end of the world played on their psyche. Some of the fleeing migrants said they wished to “die at home among our own”.

Factories, offices and markets had come to a halt. They stared at an unknown future.

They comprise the largest workforce and their families the biggest electorate. Their lives were in danger because of a pandemic they had never seen before. Their livelihood had been lost. They were in panic. And, the governments at the Centre and in states gave in to public pressure.

In the third phase of coronavirus lockdown, Shramik Special trains started running. The mandate was to transport “stranded” migrants. They were to be workers, pilgrims, tourists and students.

But who is a stranded migrant? Who can answer the question? Who bears the cost? What could be implications of the flight of migrants for both the source and destination states?

These questions remained largely unanswered even though a few thousand migrants reached their destination. Now, different governments have answered these questions differently.

And, Shramik Special trains are being halted.

States had to identify a stranded migrant, provide her the railway ticket and collect fare. Collecting fare led to a political controversy and it appeared that the fleeing migrants would not have to pay for their travel or only a fraction if at all. But reports say the migrants still paid.

For arranging a train, source or destination state could place a request with the railways. But for a journey, it required consent of both the states. Here begins the problem of migrants.

India has about 10 crore migrant workers. They are the bulls that pull the yoke of Indian economy. Flight of migrant workers from developed states to their poorer cousins would mean the conveyor belt of economy does not have enough fuel to run.

Employers started sending deputations to their governments for wresting flight of migrants. For example, Karnataka government has withdrawn its request for special trains two for five days a week to Bihar. It followed Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa’s meeting with a group of builders.

Destination states too are worried. Being an imported disease in India, Covid-19 has been largely an urban phenomenon, particularly centred around the big business hubs of India Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Indore and states like Punjab and Haryana.

Destination states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand are not only poorer, their health infrastructure is also inept at handling sudden influx of people with uncertain Covid-19 diagnosis.

A well-off state like Punjab has found it difficult to deal with homecoming migrants. Punjab looked to have an upper hand in containing Covid-19 cases until hundreds of people came from Maharashtra that led to a surge in the coronavirus numbers in the state.

So, Bihar decided not to give clearance to six trains coming from Haryana, which wanted to send the migrants to minimize its Covid-19 testing load. West Bengal refused to accept any migrant from worst-hit Maharashtra. Bihar too withdrew its blanket approval for inbound migrants from Maharashtra. Bihar said it would decide on case-by-case basis. There are a few lakh migrants from Bihar in Maharashtra.

The Centre too is not happy with the flight of migrants. Sources in the government say this was the reason why free train travel was not provisioned when the Centre’s notification allowed stranded migrants to go home.

But an announcement by Congress president Sonia Gandhi apparently “unsettled” the Centre’s plan. It went on defensive. Now, it is largely up to state to decide to what extent they want their economic activities to be in operation.

What is certain is that India’s economy would not return to normal without migrant workers, who seem to be choosing life over livelihood leaving the policy makers in a fresh dilemma.

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