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Opinion

Bihar’s lessons on the migrant worker crisis, writes Sanjay Jha – analysis

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In interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, Bihar Prime Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar raised the issue of migrant workers and the protocols related to their movement. The protracted blockade has firmly highlighted these workers, with Bihar among the most severely affected states, as millions of them remain stranded.

Amid hunger, the currency crisis and uncertainty, migrant workers have been treated as strangers, which is why many left on foot for their homes. Reports of the exodus of migrant workers from Delhi and other cities were evidence of their alienation. With widespread panic, migrants became easy targets on social media and were labeled as coronavirus carriers.

Bihar’s frenzied efforts, home to India’s second-largest migrant labor population, to tackle the exodus, including containment measures located at state borders, were not enough to counter this stigma. In many places, enforcement of the lockdown using the police force, as well as various infection control measures, such as sealing those identified for isolation and / or quarantine, made matters worse for them. It was only when the Supreme Court stepped in to dispel this bias that the media and government responses changed to some extent.

As states begin to design measures to get workers back to assembly lines, they could pull out a sheet from Bihar’s book on how to reach out to migrant workers and treat them humanely. This model is already being replicated by Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand to reach trapped workers in other states.

Bihar was the first state to respond to the needs of its stranded migrant workers in other states. CM Nitish Kumar first made sure that people who contacted the state government in the first few days of closing were returned so that the government could solve their problems. Their deprivation was related to their lack of money and guaranteed food. In one of its first directives immediately after allocating Rs 150 million from the CM Relief Fund to combat the pandemic (this has now increased to Rs 250 million), the CM ordered senior officials on April 2 to remit 1,000 rupees directly to the bank accounts of Bihari workers stranded outside. By April 6, the disaster management department (DMD) not only developed and tested a dedicated software application for this, but successfully managed to transfer funds to individual bank accounts, while launching help lines for that people continue to arrive outside the state government.

The magnitude of the task may seem daunting, but it is nothing new to the state machinery that has extended monetary relief to the vulnerable in the past. This was, however, the first time that migrants living outside of Bihar were identified, verified and contacted. The state government, prior to April 27, had transferred Rs 1,000 via direct bank transfer (DBT) to more than 1.6 million non-resident Biharis accounts.

Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are prominently featured in this list of DBT schemes.

The state government established numbers of help lines for people stranded abroad, erected state border help centers for migrant workers confined to their homes, established community quarantine centers in villages and panchayats, and ensured that local employment through government schemes, it would absorb as many return migrants as possible. Even before the partial reduction of the blockade since April 20, the state government ordered all departments to use Mahatma Gandhi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to provide employment for local workers.

Out of state, DMD and the Bihar Foundation have been managing 52 aid centers in 12 cities in different states to provide cooked food and food packages. More than 20,000 people receive meals every day at the 12 centers in Delhi alone. Similarly, the 24 * 7 and 60-line state helpline answered more than 100,000 calls, facilitating affirmative action for 2.5 million people, mostly related to food and monetary issues.

Beyond financial assistance through DBT and support through community centers and helplines, state initiatives have successfully connected hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in an extended community.

This is a challenging time for both the state government and migrant workers. But taking care of them, through protection mechanisms, while taking care that the disease does not spread, is both ethical and pragmatic. After all, it is these workers who will have to get the economy back on its feet when India opens.

Sanjay Jha is Minister of Water Resources in the Bihar Government

The opinions expressed are personal.

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