The dilemma with migrants – editorials
On Tuesday afternoon, just hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the extension of the blockade for another 19 days, hundreds, some reports indicate thousands, of migrant workers made their way to Bandra (West) Station in Mumbai. They had been waiting for the closure to end, and had assumed they could return home. Some reports say this assumption was based on a flawed news report on special trains. With established restrictions, even on interstate bus and rail travel, this was not going to happen. The same day, in Surat, hundreds of textile workers staged a sit-in, demanding that they be allowed to return home. This longing is not new. Shortly after Modi declared closure on March 24, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers began to return home, some walking long distances to do so.
These large congregations of workers, very close to each other, are disturbing. They represent a feeling of despair, which emerges from financial suffering and emotional anxiety. They also undermine the principle of social estrangement, as an infected person at any one of these gatherings has the potential to infect hundreds, who can then come into contact with hundreds of other people. An incident is required to start another chain of transmission, which may delay India’s efforts in the battle against the pandemic.
And that’s why a two-pronged approach is necessary to calm the anxieties of migrant workers. The first is to recognize that they are financially insecure, without income, and often without food. As Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac pointed out, without revenue support, compliance with the restrictions will be low. The government needs to immediately expand its cash transfer measure and include workers in the unorganized sector, perhaps even incentivize those who stay in migrant worker camps, at least until May 3. On April 20, as notified by the Interior Ministry, it will help a segment of workers. But they need more direct financial and food support. There is a second element. Many workers are eager to return home because they are afraid: of illness, of being left alone in the city, of the fate of their families in their homes. Traveling will mean a high degree of risk because social distancing rules cannot be applied on trains and buses. Traveling is also difficult because their home states are not responsive to these workers, given the fear that they may spread the infection in villages. These are all real limitations, but the problem requires more sensitive communication, and the announcement of measures that alleviate their anxieties and encourage migrant workers to stay where they are.