COVID-19: Give Migrant Workers Food And Cash Or Face Their Wrath

With no food and no money, their anger is spilling onto the streets. India needs to do more to help them survive.

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Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

Millions of India’s poorest are now desperate, some of them angry. No money, no food, no work. You saw them at Mumbai’s Bandra station, hundreds of them reportedly after hearing rumours that trains were going to take them home – desperation forcing them to abandon all social distancing and not caring about police lathis. The same happened in Mumbai’s Mumbra suburb, in Rajasthan, Surat and Tamil Nadu as Modi announced the second lockdown.

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The situation facing Modi and the state governments is unprecedented but it is also clear that we are failing our poorest in a big way. To understand, let us rewind a bit.

22 March, when all 12,500 passenger trains across India were stopped and all bus travel too, the government saw millions of migrant workers crowding train and bus stations to get home. Yet trains and buses were stopped, leaving them stranded in the cities. On 24 March a 21-days lockdown was announced within just 4 hours’ notice. Despite Modi Ji's plea, lakhs decided to walk home. Why would they risk coronavirus? Why walk for days with their children on their heads? Because with no jobs, no money, getting to their villages was their only hope.

Where Did the Government Go Wrong?

The government should have allowed migrant workers to get home to their villages. For that, trains and buses were needed for at least a week before the lockdown. This would have decongested the cities. It would have led to more efficient social distancing both in cities and villages. Instead, the government said, stay in the cities. But to make that happen you have to put money into that jobless worker’s pocket which wasn’t done. The cash and food relief announced by the finance minister was too little, and did not even include most migrant workers. And for the eligible few, it wasn’t clear how these small amounts would even reach them.

And now the PM says full lockdown till 3 May. Naturally, that triggers fresh panic, which spilt onto the streets of Mumbai.

The need of the hour is solutions and for that, we need to:

  1. Accept the enormity of the challenge. Just homilies on TV broadcasts are not going to cut it
  2. Urgently organise more cash and more food for our poorest and deliver it

Economist Mohan Guruswamy says about 136 million workers in India have no contracts – most of them are daily wagers trying to survive a 40-day lockdown with no income. That is 1/10th of India’s population. Even after the lockdown, a CMIE report says 30% of these workers will stay unemployed ie 30 to 40 million workers who will need cash and food for many more months, to survive.

Experts have explained how the 1.7 lakh crores offered as relief so far by Nirmala Sitharaman is too little. Much more money is needed. Mohan Guruswamy says the money is there:

  • India has over $480 billion invested abroad. Monetising just one-tenth would be 3.2 lakh crore rupees
  • The RBI has 9.6 lakh crores as reserves meant for financial emergencies. One-third of that would be another 3.2 lakh crores
  • Access 10-20% of big bank deposits in exchange for tax-free bonds would unlock even more funds

Economists have suggested several cash options that are available. But what’s puzzling is the finance minister’s silence. After her 27th March Press Conference, Nirmala Sitharaman has been silent.

Apart from cash, is the need for food. We all heard the announcement of 5kg grain and 1-kilo dal, but is this reaching those stuck in the cities? The irony underlined by agricultural economist Devinder Sharma is that India right now has a massive 350 lakh tonne of excess wheat and rice. 8.5 lakh tons of extra pulses or dal, 30 lakh tonnes buffer stock of sugar. But even in a national emergency, despite excess of food, we are failing to feed the very people whom we have stopped from going back to their homes.

Yeh Jo India Hai Na... surely it needs to treat those worst hit by the lockdown with more urgency, more planning, more dignity.

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