It is poverty and joblessness that has driven the labourers from all over India to this misery.
Just hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the extension of the lockdown, hundreds — some reports indicate thousands — of migrant workers made their way to stations. They had been waiting for the lockdown to end — and had assumed that they could return home. Some reports say this assumption was based on an erroneous news report about special trains. With restrictions in place, including on inter-state bus and rail travel, this was not to happen. The same day, in Surat, hundreds of textile workers staged a sit-in, demanding that they be allowed to return home. This yearning is not new. Soon after Mr Modi declared the lockdown on March 24, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers began making their way home, some walking long distances to do so.
Why and how have migrant workers suffered during the lockdown?
One of the most severely affected sections of the population due to the extended lockdown has been migrant workers, especially those in urban areas across the country. The recent Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted in 2017 by the National Sample Survey Office of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, had estimated that there were around 1,49,53,750 urban workers who had vulnerable jobs. These workers included helpers in a household enterprise and who did not receive a regular salary and casual labourers who received daily wages; besides this, the number considers only those in bottom 50% of the wealth pyramid in 2017-18, based on their monthly per capita expenditure. This number extended to an estimated 2.5 crore people if those who had salaried jobs but did not receive any paid leave and other benefits were included. Migrant workers numbered more than 81 lakh people among this segment.
What has been announced for migrant workers?
The Finance Minister acknowledged the significance of the MGNREGS in providing jobs to returning workers in rural areas. The government noted that work off-take increased in May. This followed instructions from the Centre to restart the scheme after work hours fell drastically in April. The Centre has now advised States/Union Territories to provide work through the scheme and to extend this to the monsoon season as well in providing jobs in plantations, horticulture, livestock-related work. The CMIE’s latest unemployment survey report also found that while various segments (small traders, salaried employees, entrepreneurs, etc) have suffered significant job losses, the number of farmers in the survey had increased, indicating that farm work has been a source of livelihood during the lockdown.
What if transmission speeds up?
These large congregations of workers — at close proximity with each other — are disturbing. They represent a sense of desperation, which is emerging from economic suffering and emotional anxiety.
They also undermine the principle of social distancing, for one infected person in any of these gatherings has the potential of infecting hundreds, who may then come in contact with hundreds of others. It requires one incident to begin another chain of transmission, which can set back India’s efforts in the battle against the pandemic.