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The crisis of migrant workers needs a multiple response: analysis


Images of migrant workers walking home, some on top of trucks or walking barefoot, with women and children in tow, have rocked the nation’s conscience. The tragic accidents with injuries and loss of life have caused sympathy. However, the images of the Narendra Modi government’s Operation Shramik Express, which has helped more than four million migrants return home on buses and special trains, are reassuring.

In India, migrant labor is intertwined with the fabric and the fabric of the economic fabric. It is a measure of national economic integration and also of regional and rural-urban disparities that force migrants from the weakest states to go to the subways and other states in search of livelihoods. They contribute to the prosperity of their home and destination states, while empowering themselves.

The sudden and inevitable blockage of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) threatens to unravel this tissue. The fragility of productive capacities based on migrant workers is exposed. Of the 40 million migrant workers affected, blue-collar workers, the informal sector, are the face of multidimensional poverty, inequality, and the unrealized demographic dividend. Its massive exodus from host states has created an unprecedented humanitarian and health security challenge and logistical nightmare.

This complicates the government’s attempts to stop the spread. It presents a longer-term risk of labor dislocation and atrophy. It has already impacted post-closing economic activities announced under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.

Opposition parties have fueled and used the migrant worker puzzle to criticize the government’s Covid-19 strategy. As interested stakeholders, they must recognize the severity of the calamity and the magnitude of the response it requires. Modi, for his part, is driving India’s stupendous response to the crisis in the spirit of Antyodaya consultative and cooperative federalism, with empathy for the plight of the poor, including the pravasi shramiks (migrant workers).

A highly infectious and novel virus, Covid-19 has pushed state and central governments into unknown territory for policy and action, without the availability of any vaccine or treatment. Unlike China, which militarily imposed the blockade of a similar scale and scope, doing so in a democracy like India, a socially and federally diverse, but economically weak country, poses a unique challenge. The migration crisis is emblematic of this and needs special initiatives.

States are empowered to decide on the extension and enforcement of the blockade, and are responsible for providing aid to migrants on the ground. The Center, therefore, had to persuade states to accept mass transportation of workers at risk of contagion. Some senior ministers have been proactive, while others are hesitant and unprepared. For instant impact during disasters, a center-state protocol must be established.

It is equally important to collect and update comprehensive data and statistics related to migrant workers, going beyond the 10-year Census exercise, classifying them into skills, sector and gender at the state and national level. Their absence has left us perplexed on the scale of migrants’ job challenge and frustrated efforts to reach them to help them with food, cash transfers, health services, shelter or relocation to host states / homes.

The other side of the coin is the information asymmetry that poor immigrants face. Many were unable to access information on aid, benefit and transportation provided by various governments. Many became prey to disinformation, unscrupulous sellers, and panic motivators. Establishing hotlines that work well, building outreach systems, and providing low-cost smartphones and IT education are crucial.

Many migrant workers left the cities due to fear of disease and stigma, evictions of landlords, confinement in congested conditions, loss of jobs, income and food insecurity, and the psychological drive to be with their families. However, many continued in the cities due to factors of better wages, jobs, prospects for better upward economic and social mobility. To allow workers to exercise real options, India must maximize the development of all states in a sustainable way.

The challenge migrant workers face upon returning to their home states includes resistance from their communities for fear of infection and lack of income and employment. As economic activities revive, many workers have already started to back down. Governments should provide for their livelihood, local employment, and return to host states.

Targeted and ecosystem support for migrant workers is a substantial part of the Rs 20 lakh crore mega-economic revival and transformation package. An abhiyan or a movement for the well-being and empowerment of migrant workers must be promoted in collaboration with state governments in a war campaign.

It should: One, increase and prioritize direct and short-term food, cash, shelter, and health support. Two, accelerate implementation measures in local infrastructure and supply chains, technology diffusion, liquidity, employment, income and generation of entrepreneurship. Three, synergistically implement measures to support other vulnerable groups and micro, small and medium-sized companies. Four, guarantee the well-being of migrant workers and the use of their potential.

In this moment of creative destruction, the well-being of migrant workers and unlocking the Ganga from its potential is vital to our survival and the economic revival of India.

Lakshmi Puri is a former deputy assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, a former deputy executive director of UN Women and a former acting deputy secretary-general of UNCTAD

The opinions expressed are personal.

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