COVID Lockdown Anniv: Why No Dept For Migrants in India Even Now?

(Retd) IAS officer Shailaja Chandra reflects on India’s migrant exodus & crisis last year post-lockdown. 

Updated
Opinion
9 min read
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(This is Part-I of a three-part series by (retd) IAS officer and public health expert Ms Shailaja Chandra, to mark the first ‘anniversary’ of India’s COVID-induced lockdown. Parts II and III can be read here and here.)

A year ago, a colossal humanitarian and economic crisis unfolded — which caused acute distress, anguish, and unemployment — and led to a mass exodus of migrant workers back to their villages once they realised that the COVID-induced lockdown was being extended again and again.

This is a blot on what was otherwise a shining success story.

Most chief ministers and their officers had no idea about what was going on. All governments thought that giving food and cash assistance was all that people needed, and no one had any idea of the many shades of migrants and what they were escaping from.

Why Didn’t the States Ring Alarm Bells When Migrants Started To Show Signs Of Worry?

Urban experts blamed the fact that the migrants did not have ration cards which disentitled them from food rations and cash support. Others said that it was the fear of impending doom and the need for family togetherness that compelled lakhs of migrants to leave.

However, against this backdrop, it is important to note that no government has a Department for Migrants.

While the COVID-induced pan-India lockdown was indeed needed, its extensions caused fear, worry and helplessness.

A contingency plan ought to have been drawn up as soon as the slum dwellers began grumbling in such large numbers. The states should have rung alarm bells and compelled the Centre to have hammered out an understanding about how the dissatisfaction and anxiety of the migrants was to be handled.

The State CIDs knew what was brewing. Had the states with cities having large migrant populations (Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and Karnataka, to start with) and the migrants’ home states been brought on a table early enough, much of the chaos and ensuing hardships could have been averted or at least mitigated.

Need for a Stronger Understanding of Migrants’ Needs & Myriad Challenges

The migrant crisis — more than anything else — has highlighted the fact that the majority of states imposed no restrictions, and the incoming populations become vote banks to be ‘pampered’ in the name of poverty. But if the magnet which draws the migrants becomes dull or ceases to be a magnet, nothing — no promises of cash, free food supply or admissions to good schools for their kids — will make them stay.

In the end, it is all about earning more money for a better life ahead. And to send money home, as often, parents, wives and children stay behind.

The absence of a policy, and systems to deal with such a large human upheaval, has detracted from what is otherwise — at least until March 2021 — a success story.

How Different States Handled the Migrant Crisis

For several days and even longer, there was a hiatus in the subject of the migrant workers, as the burden of transporting them was shifted to the states and there were conflicts between the host state government and the states in which the migrants were working. Initially, the migrant labourers were being denied entry to their home state.

On 18 May 2020, the Government of Karnataka announced that it would bar the entry of people coming from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu (until 31 May.) Haryana refused to allow the entry of anyone coming from Delhi in the month of May 2020.

Some states imposed their own lockdowns and the migrants were left to fend for themselves. The checkpoint along the Rajasthan-Gujarat borders were chock-a-block for several days, and the quarantine requirements drove the migrants to sneak through other routes.

The process of submitting registration forms to the police, a medical certificate, and the paperwork required by the Railways resulted in harassment.

In Gujarat, the migrant workers who wanted to leave had to register on the portal, to carry a medical certificate issued at a community health centre one or two days before the scheduled departure. In West Bengal, all returnees were sent to institutional quarantine for days. In Odisha, permission had to be obtained from the state from where the migrant was returning. In Goa, it was reported that there was a fee for those who had no proof of address in Goa, and a charge of Rs 2500 per day was levied for the period of quarantine.

How Did India Fare on the ‘COVID Report’?

Looking back at 20 March 2020 — and how India has surpassed all other nations, all of whom are far less populated, far richer and with a much larger investment capacity then ours. Our COVID-related deaths and active cases have remained the lowest if one looks at positivity and mortality per million population. Just two charts based on the latest available comparative international data displays this vividly:

COVID Lockdown Anniv: Why No Dept For Migrants in India Even Now?
(Courtesy: Accessed by Shailaja Chandra)
COVID Lockdown Anniv: Why No Dept For Migrants in India Even Now?
(Courtesy: Accessed by Shailaja Chandra)

It would have been a tremendous success story had a new spurt and news of new coronavirus variants not played spoilsport.

Stories of Three Migrant Families Amid Lockdown

The colony where I live is surrounded by one of Delhi’s largest slums which has only been growing for the last several decades. It is earmarked for in situ development and the slum-dwellers hope to get rich one day. Generations of the slum families have been servicing virtually every household, commercial establishments, embassies, high-end houses, clinics, neighbourhood markets and even a few modest houses built some fifty years ago by the original government allottees. (Now occupied mostly by their now elderly children).

Here are three short stories of three migrant families, all of whom returned to their villages during the COVID-induced nationwide lockdown in 2020.

These stories are recounted not to portray individual hardship but something else — the business model of slum life.

Nagesh From Bundi, Rajasthan

The first was Nagesh who came from Bundi district in Rajasthan 50 years ago at the age of 15. For 35 years he had lifted cement bags as a daily wage labourer along with his wife who earned wages as a stone-cutter. Nagesh fathered four children all born and schooled in Delhi.

One became a Sanskrit school teacher in Jhalawar after spending all the old man’s earnings on attending coaching classes in Kota. The second son became a granite and marble-cutter and owns his own electric saw.

The third son and a daughter returned to their native village once they got married. Nagesh, now 65, had, over the last three decades, acquired two slum tenements and had the highest category among ration cards — meant for the poorest of the poor. Retrenched because of old age, Nagesh took a job as a chowkidar, and with loans taken from various people including a money-lender, he constructed two additional rooms on top of his two tenements (with appropriate payments to the slum pradhan).

The marble-cutter son Suresh had, over the last 15 years, produced 4 children. When COVID arrived, Nagesh’s teacher son asked him to return to Bundi which he did. He is still there, receiving rent as an absentee landlord. The marble-cutter son is here but his four children all went back to Rajasthan, and will return when schools reopen.

Sunita From Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh

Sunita came from Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh, and was married to the son of a rickshaw-puller from Amethi who came to Delhi some 20 years ago. The rickshaw-puller’s wife bore him three sons who stayed with the mother in Amethi and continued to live there, but one by one came to Delhi some 15 years ago.

One of the sons married Sunita and brought her to Delhi, where she picked up work as a part-time house help — illiterate but smart enough to be of help. Her husband too was uneducated like her, and in addition, was disabled. The only skill he could learn was as a helper maali (gardener).

For years, he worked as an understudy and with sheer perseverance and good behaviour filled a part-time vacancy as a gardener in an embassy.

Sunita’s two children (third-generation) were attending a private school nearby, and her wages paid partially for their school fees. Within a month of the COVID lockdown, Sunita and her husband returned to Amethi, although they had a slum room, water and a ration card. She returned only in August 2020 and found new jobs as a part-time domestic worker.

Prakash From Sunderbans, Bengal

Prakash is a first generation Bengali from the Sundarbans. Married early and having already fathered two children by 22, he rented a small space in the slum and brought his wife and infant son. He cleaned 40 cars every morning assisted by a relative who paid for board and a space to sleep alongside Prakash and his wife.

In addition to car cleaning, Prakash cooked for two families and in between attended to an old man who needed a few hours of house support.

Prakash earned some Rs 25,000 a month before the lockdown. But after the lockdown, he was without work. He got infected with COVID and was isolated in a government facility for around a month.

Once he was declared COVID-negative, he was allowed to return to his family, but the neighbours would not allow any of them to step out of their one room tenement.

He was held hostage by the entire neighbourhood, until one night, with the help of his sub-lessee, he escaped with his family, alternately travelling by truck, train, and even on foot and later a boat — to reach his village in the Sundarbans.

The first effort to run away came on 29 March 2020, when some migrants decided to board buses at the Anand Vihar bus terminal in Delhi. A few days later the same story was repeated at Bandra station in Mumbai.

No Direction Home: How Migrants Found Their Way Back Home

The lockdown was in force and the police began filing cases against the absconders. It took a long time before the shramik trains started, and many states imposed impossible conditions on migrants who were trying to leave.

For the migrants, the return home meant gruelling times en route, but it did not end there. They faced another set of obstacles this time, imposed by the villagers themselves who had erected barricades to prevent the entry of anyone setting foot from outside — a dilemma for the official machinery and an added torture for the returning migrants.

What the Centre & States Could Have Done For Migrants During Lockdown

These stories show that the migrants aren't all just ‘penniless paupers’. They have enterprise, and they put up with slum life to earn more and more. Quality of life is not an issue for them, as earning money is what keeps them going.

They can’t all be put into one basket, as neither the Centre nor the states have any department for migrant labour, to ascertain who was where, doing what and since when.

What all governments failed to do was get CID reports from the states about what the inmates of huge slum clusters planned to do. To have drawn up contingency plans based on the proclivity of people to go back to their village homes. To have segregated them into those who were going to different states. To have drawn up plans for home-bound journeys saying the families needed to first register in transit camps before they would be given free passage upto the State or district HQ by train or bus after being screened for COVID. NGOs (over 90,000) were contacted by Niti Aayog, could have been asked to organise food for the journey back for registered migrants with travel coupons.

The state from where the migrant left and the state where he went to, should have been asked to pay proportionately to the Railways and the Transport Departments. PM-CARES funds should have been used for food supplies en route.

Had meetings of the State CMs, Railways and Surface Transport with State officials been called, and plans made based on State CID information, the chaotic exodus of migrants might have been averted.

As we know by now, simply feeding them and giving them cash wasn’t enough.

(Shailaja Chandra (IAS retd) has over 45 years experience of public administration focusing on governance, health management, population stabilisation and women’s empowerment. She was Secretary of the Department of Indian Systems of Medicine & Homeopathy, Ministry of Health &Family Welfare (1999-2002) and following that the Chief Secretary Delhi until 2004. She tweets at @over2shailaja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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