Using the army, paramilitaries to face the crisis of migrant workers: analysis
On Thursday, 16 migrant workers were crushed by a train in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. They were sleeping on the train tracks after a long journey on foot in a desperate attempt to return to their home cities hundreds of kilometers away in Madhya Pradesh. While the government has failed to make adequate arrangements for migrant workers, who are driving our economy, planes are being organized for those who come from abroad.
It is not just a matter of emotion that migrants want to get home, although that should be enough. It is not just a matter of your right to move within your own country, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to guarantee public health. The idea should have been to maximize their mobility and minimize restrictions. It is a matter of their survival. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court and higher courts are silent. They could have asked the central government to operate the return of migrants from their host states to the home states with these simple principles.
But they have not.
The impact is there for all to see. Every day, there are stories of migrant workers and their families, deprived of food and money, desperately trying to get home. How many must have gone to an early grave not because of Covid-19 but because of the insensitivity and disorganization of the state?
People act with common sense. Migrants in Surat, Bandra, Noida and Karnataka know that their families will starve and prey on predators if they do not return to safety or care for those they have left behind. They had left everything that was familiar and loved for a better life. Now they are opting for a life of subsistence among their own rather than with strangers in the cities that have used them and then let them go.
Six weeks have passed in an increasingly prolonged national shutdown, albeit with some relief from the restrictions. The most visible presence of the armed forces has been the shower of petals in hospitals and participating in air passes from north to south and from east to west.
The Indian army does many laudable things. There were reports that in the early days of the blockade it contributed medical equipment and labor. The Army is mandated to come to the aid of civil authority whenever there is a national need. It is stationed in all parts of the country; It has tents, rations and water supplies. It has transportation vehicles to move people and food. Their men and resources are available a very short distance from all the arterial roads and highways used by the working poor. It has management skills and an organized and disciplined force to take action at any time.
None of the assistance they can offer would reduce their operational capabilities. If the risk of infection is worrisome, the State can implement adequate preventive measures that do not hinder work but minimize the risk. The army knows how to minimize casualties. Even now, food water and rest stops can be arranged at regular distances just like isolation camps along the way. Workers will understand if they are screened to see if they can continue or if they should rest in a quarantine area along the way. They will be quarantined when necessary, if they only know that they will eventually be assisted to get home.
Six weeks have passed. People keep walking. People are still thirsty. People are close to starvation. These are not ordinary people; They have built the country. They will build the country in the future. They are not doing you any favors in getting you where you think you belong. There is still time to save lives and regain confidence. Galvanizing the Army or even the paramilitaries to help these long marches will transform everyday images of sadness into those of a joyous gathering. This is what needs to be done.
Maja Daruwala is Senior Advisor to the Tata Trusts and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The opinions expressed are personal.