In the coming days, much of the health and economic action will have to move to rural India
India’s migrant workers can now go home in buses instead of having to walk hundreds of kilometres under the scorching sun while dodging police barricades and risking death.
How prepared is rural India for their homecoming? No one really knows.
In the coming days, much of the health and economic action will have to move to rural India. The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj is launching an awareness initiative to help gram panchayats across the country deal better with the Covid-19 outbreak.
But in the minds of the returning migrants and their relatives, the risk of Covid-19 infection pales in comparison with lack of money and livelihood options back home. It was perfectly natural for migrant workers to want to go home when they lost their jobs in the cities in one fell swoop. Now they may actually get home, what do they do for a living?
The winter rabi harvest has been affected by untimely rain and the lockdown that kept the migrant workers from getting home when they should have. At best, the returning migrants can help get to market whatever their wives and aged parents and children have managed to harvest. But even that will not be easy in the absence of transport despite delayed directives by the home ministry.
Most migrants who are headed home have no money. What little they had by way of savings is over. Right now, they cannot even buy seeds and fertilisers for the main kharif crop of the year. They desperately need remunerative work.
There is a lot of talk about work being given to the returning migrant workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act But the ground reality is not encouraging.
The Centre gave its nod for MGNREGA workers to take up jobs from April 20. By April 30, just over 30 lakh people were provided work under MGNREGA, according to official data. In some states, MGNREGA work has not even started.
Two-thirds of India’s 1.38 billion population is rural, spread over about 650,000 villages. Hunger already stalks villages. Many civil society luminaries like Jean Drèze have suggested that the Centre universalise the food public distribution system (PDS) across the country for the next few months. Universal PDS is feasible, they say, because there are enough foodgrain stocks.
An added complication is that all states are affected, but not equally so.
“There is no work,” says Marianus Tirki, a community activist in Jhakra in Jharkhand’s Simdega district –– one of the most backward pockets in the country. “I have received the salary for March. but I don’t know what will happen in future.”
It is imperative for Central and state governments to plan long-term, but there is no evidence they are doing so. Right now, all the talk is about the logistics of getting the migrant workers home. The cacophony on that does not augur well for long-term planning.
The Centre wants state governments to run special “sanitised” bus services to get migrant workers back to their home states. Many states want special trains instead.
The Centre has quite correctly said everyone must be screened for Covid-19 infection before they board the buses and when they get down. Its directive that all bus passengers should quarantine themselves at home for a fortnight is unexceptionable, as is its directive that anyone getting off a bus and showing Covid-19 symptoms should be in institutional quarantine. But several states like Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand already have plans to not only bring the migrant workers back but also to set up quarantine facilities. Other states are firming up blueprints.
But not all are on the same page. The experience with migrant workers who did manage to return over the last month shows very uneven application of home quarantine. This cannot really be done just by policing. There is an urgent need for every state government to clearly explain to every section of the population how the Covid-19 virus spreads and what needs to be done. Despite blanket media coverage of the pandemic, there is serious lack of understanding among large sections of the population.
And there is strong mistrust due to what people have seen since the start of the epidemic. They have first seen the Central government scrambling to arrange evacuation flights, more worried about getting back people from other countries than about anybody back home. Then they have seen states arranging special buses to get back students from coaching centres like Kota while migrant workers have been left locked up.
Migrant workers know only too well that the Indian State rarely designs policies with them in mind. That is why right through the lockdown, they have tried their best to get home by themselves. Some fled relief centres in the dead of night and started walking, only to be picked up en route and quarantined again. Some tried to smuggle themselves in trucks carrying essential goods. Some died on the way.
It’s not going to be easy for the authorities to win back the trust of migrant workers and their families. But it must be done, as the pandemic and economic distress will both be worsened by lack of trust.
The migrant homecoming story will be the one to watch in the next few months.