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Migrant Crisis is a Lesson for Covid-19 Vaccination and PDS Effort


He pedaled through northern India with his injured father in tow, making international headlines and becoming the face of the plight of migrant workers battling a raging pandemic and national shutdown.

Today, cyclist Jyoti Kumari and her family are worried again. The money they received from politicians and philanthropists is dwindling, a film deal is stalled, their school education has not been resumed, and no one in the family has a permanent job.

“I’m worried. I want to continue my education, but I’m not sure about the future,” said the 17-year-old, a resident of Sirhulli village in Bihar’s Darbhanga village.

On May 8, Kumari got on his purple bike, put his father, electronic rickshaw driver Mohan Paswan, in the seat of the baby carrier, and started pedaling from Gurugram. He was unable to walk due to a traffic accident in January and his rations were rapidly dwindling due to the closure.

With the help of another group of migrant workers, small truckers’ lifts and food from local people on the way, they reached their village in the impoverished northern strip of Bihar around 9 p.m. on May 17. A tweet from Ivanka Trump and national media attention drew attention to her praise, an offer for a biopic, and a test at the Indian cycling federation.

It also improved their social status in a village where caste hierarchies are invisible but defined, and Dalit families live in a backward group. “Our family has a new social acceptance, which we did not have before,” said Kumari.

Before, higher caste people would avoid family in public spaces. Now, they often invite their guests to Paswan’s house and refer to the teenager as the pride of the village.

“Those who never bothered to visit us, now come for tea. There is a big change in their attitude and in the way they treat us now, ”said their mother Phulo Devi, 40, an Anganwadi worker.

Kumari is afraid of Covid-19, but knows little about the infection, except that it is highly contagious; she wears a mask, but hardly anyone else in town does. You have heard almost nothing about a vaccine. “I do not know. I’m not sure if we will make it, ”she said.

He turned down the cycling test and has now joined a coaching institute to pass Class 10 exams that he failed once before. His movie contract is mired in contractual complications.

With his cash rewards and gifts, many of which are locked in a steel chest, his family paid off debts, financed Paswan’s medical treatment, added a second story to his home, and inscribed his name in large gold fonts on the door. .

But since no one in the family of seven works, Paswan fears that he will have to return to Gurugram soon. “Without a job in the village, I am facing immense financial difficulties … I couldn’t even complete the construction work on our house because the funds ran out,” said Paswan, 45.

Reverse migration in danger

The Paswans are the best-known example of the millions of migrant workers who left Indian cities shortly after the closure was announced on March 25. They walked miles, took buses, traveled in trucks, and finally took trains back to their country. field to home, their plight highlighting the dangers and precariousness of economic migration in India.

The tragedy brought crucial lessons for the public and the country’s legislators.

It showed the uneven pace and geographic distribution of economic development, and was made even clearer by the routes taken by 3,800 Shramik Special trains, announced for migrant workers since May 1, from western and southern cities to eastern and northern districts. . Even the return of the workers from August showed that there was still no real job tying them to their homes in the field.

The crisis also showed the problems with social security and the public distribution system and how workers did not feel at home despite living in cities for decades. At a time of great stress and crisis, they chose their traditional family and community networks over institutional commitment.

To solve this, the government announced a series of measures, including priority credit, jobs in rural districts, and strengthening of village infrastructure. But the most important among them, according to the author and professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Chinmay Tumbe, is the “one nation, one serving” card program that promises cardholders to make a profit from any fair price store in the country regardless of your home state.

“This is a big problem and its policy architecture is being implemented. You have to communicate better so that you can get the benefits anywhere. Portability of social security benefits is a long-standing demand and must be accelerated, ”he said.

The program is expected to be implemented in the first quarter of 2021. “We can be more ambitious. Now it’s about PDS, but we should be able to access public health services anywhere in India, ”said Tumbe..

Jobs disappear

The crisis also underscored the paucity of data. Eight months after the first migrants appeared on the roads, there is little data on their exact numbers and estimates vary between 30 and 150 million. The Labor Ministry ordered a survey, the fieldwork of which is expected to begin in February.

The economic contraction – 23.9% in the April-June quarter and 7.5% in the July-September quarter – also meant the disappearance of many jobs, especially in the informal sector. So the neighborhood carpet seller or the charlatan on the corner did not return to the city from their villages.

Tumbe believes this is temporary and that the economy will recover. But the key to speeding up the recovery process will be a robust vaccination program targeting migrant workers.

“The key is that migrant workers are vaccinated. It is important to think of them as a target group because they will keep coming and going, and if someone is affected, they can spread the virus, ”Tumbe said.

Three independent candidate vaccines are seeking regulatory approval in India and the government has announced plans to vaccinate at least 300 million high-risk people by July, including some 30 million healthcare and frontline workers, in the first phase. .

But Tumbe believes that migrant workers should also be considered a target category, and logistics should be adjusted accordingly, both in the workers’ state of origin and destination. “There has to be an infallible mechanism. For example, if Bihar says vaccines are free, what are millions of Bihari workers doing out of state? There has to be a smart way. ”

With literacy and awareness of Covid-19 low among many migrants, building communication channels and increasing confidence in the efficacy of vaccines will be key. In the West, prominent politicians and celebrities have made the decision to dispel the myths, and India should follow suit. “The government has the role of actively intervening and targeting migrants,” Tumbe added.

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