Can Rural India Handle Migrant Returnees & Rise In COVID Cases?

In due time, authorities will have to prepare for reverse migration of workers from rural to urban areas. 

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Mass exodus of migrant workers. Image used for representational purposes.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is remarkable in the sense that it has radically changed the international political, economic and social order without even firing a shot. There is no parallel to such a development in recent history, and its after effects will certainly be felt for many years to come. Powerful political systems and economic giants are in disarray as witnessed in the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, the European Union (EU), Middle-East, India, and its immediate concentric. Even international institutions are struggling to cope with the destabilisation effects of the pandemic.

The Worst Is Yet to Come

It is obvious that there are lessons to be learnt especially the question of whether our existing management structures, including political governance systems, have proved adequate to meet the current challenges. There is no room or reason to cheer about the situation the international community currently finds itself in. From an analysis of the initial months of the pandemic, two significant things have emerged: First, the pandemic has changed the ‘status-quo’ with regard to governance, and secondly, it has postponed economic development to a future date. Hopes of an early return to a normal way of life is proving to be a mirage. The world will never be the same again.

India did a remarkable job in tackling the pandemic in its initial weeks providing a sense of relief that it had escaped the wrath of the virus. Some of the practices that emerged from certain states like Kerala, gained acceptance as internationally-applicable smart solutions.

However, the results in the past four weeks or so have not been commensurate with expectations, and the jury is still out.

There is cause for concern, as worrisome trends are being noticed in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Delhi. The worst is perhaps yet to come.

Multiple Challenges Await Rural India As Migrants Make the Long Walk Home

India’s vast country-side is the scene for the next major battle against COVID-19. The gram panchayats and zilla parishads across the country will have to bear the brunt especially when an estimated 8 crore workers return to their villages from urban centers and other habitations. There are multiple challenges here that need to be addressed:

  • First, the onus will be on the officials of the gram panchayats and zilla parishads to ensure that the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) are clearly understood and implemented.
  • Second, that the returnees are kept under surveillance and monitored regularly to pre-empt the pandemic from entering rural areas.
  • Third, to provide them livelihood for at least the next 4-6 weeks.
  • Lastly, to keep them out of harm’s way as much as possible.

The efficacy of the entire gram panchayat and zilla parishad systems will be put to the test. These officials will become the frontline warriors and have to be invested with adequate support and sustenance by respective state governments to ensure that the emergency is handled effectively.

Migrant Worker Returnees Must Be Given Guidance, Job & Livelihood Assurance By Local Authorities & Leaders

The authorities will have to eventually prepare for the reverse migration of workers from rural locations to urban areas. This will witness a phenomenal disruption and will have to be catered to by the authorities. The union ministries of labour, the panchayati raj, home, railways, surface transport and health have their tasks cut out – and will have to act in tandem. They cannot operate in silos anymore, and it is important for them to deliver across departmental boundaries to avoid the aberrations observed in the past several weeks.

An important decision that needs to be taken is whether it is possible to convince the migrant workers from returning to their home states at this point of time, especially since some form of economic activity has resumed across the country.

Major states such as Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – that provide skilled and unskilled labour forces – should consider plans to advise migrant workers to stay put in their host states. Elected representatives, non-government organisations, and social help groups from these states should visit and interact with the migrant workers and give assurances of livelihood and employment.

It is possible that these workers are bereft of advice and guidance and need such assurances. In this direction, the appeal made by Karnataka Chief Minister, BS Yediyurappa, is a step in the right direction. There is reason for others to emulate him.

Fighting COVID: The Karnataka ‘Rural Model’

Karnataka’s record in tackling the pandemic is note-worthy especially in rural areas, where gram panchayats and zilla parishads have played a stellar role. States in Peninsular India may have recorded a better performance as compared to those in the central heartland. Kerala and Karnataka have recorded impressive performances. The Northeast has shown greater resilience in tackling the pandemic – the grassroots political systems and civil society bodies have played a major role and need to be encouraged.

The ‘status-quo’ has to be altered to become outcome-based. Gram panchayats and their counterparts across the country have to be empowered to deliver basic necessities. This unit of administrative devolution must undergo major changes. A beginning has to be made with health and education. Governments may find it useful to consider popularising the old school of Licentiate Medical Practitioners (LMP) or Registered Medical Practitioner (RMP), complemented by ASHA volunteers as first responders to any medical emergency. The other is to examine the importance of Indian NGOs and Self Help Groups (SHGs) in such circumstances.

The government’s resources are over-stretched. It needs to consider proactive partnership with the corporate sector, civil society and importantly, the private security industry.

The next 6-8 months will be crucial to contain the spread of the pandemic, and for capacity-building and skills development. Also there is a real need to look at the adequacy of our service delivery systems in the rural areas as also governance methods. Lastly, there is a greater need to induct technology as a force multiplier.

(PM Heblikar is Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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