Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Sakshi Sharda, Chhavi Kapoor, Sunidhi Agarwal, Anshula Mehta

Migrant workers have been assured multiple times that an economic lockdown will not be imposed and yet photographs have already started to emerge of reverse migration. Given this context, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute and Working People Charter organized a Panel Discussion on Reverse Migration amidst the Second Wave of Coronavirus Pandemic: Challenges and Solutions.The Chair of the session was Prof Arun Kumar, Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and a Retd. Professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Pandemic has proved one thing Migrant Workers are Frontline Indians, needs urgent attention.

Prof. Irudaya Rajan took upon himself the task to locate for the audience the coming future of migrants. He pointed that speaking about the second wave as in the future is a futile exercise because the second wave has already begun. The prediction is India will have a caseload ranging from 5 lakh to 8 lakh cases per day and 5000 deaths for the coming month, to say the least. It is a condition of helplessness where most of the population is directly or indirectly affected by the virus itself. 

Last March PM of India has announced a national lockdown with less than 500 cases in India. There have been no national announcements this time. Chief Ministers have taken the role of Prime Ministers and have announced lockdown in their own states or specific districts. Karnataka being the latest state to announce the same, even one state in lockdown will affect the migrant worker. One state in lockdown is the country going under lockdown because movement is hampered. 

No lessons from Lockdown 1.0

If the conditions don’t improve the announcements of states announcing lockdown will continue. This chaos in national response only increases experiences of uncertainty. We have failed to protect migrants in the Covid wave. The response that has been repeatedly called for is cash transfers which a few states have done for the meager amount of Rs 1000. No policy has the desired impact because there is no comprehensive data available. 

This lockdown impacts both inter-state and inter-country migrants. This is a question of the movement of 200 million people with no social security net and complete absence of any means of livelihood. There was no assistance to the migrants and the Shramik trains charged migrants to return to their home states. These trains were popularly referred to as the Corona Express. 

Migrant bodies were reduced only to be the carriers of the COVID-19 virus. The government of India kept asking the migrants to stay where they are, with no assistance and no means of livelihood. The branding of the migrants as the carrier of the virus continued. 

Migrant Workers are Frontline Indians

The Vaccination policy at this time has been in utter chaos. The Vaccine, a life-saving necessity has been phased in its availability. The priority first was health workers, followed by the age group above 45 years of age. The country is now debating monetizing the vaccines at the price of Rs 150. The concern for the population that was going to travel was completely absent. Increasing public transportation at this response is only to encourage the loss of livelihoods and the government only needed to sustain the population with cash transfers. 

Migrants have not been located as stakeholders in the vaccination drive. Had this been accounted for the second wave of the virus could have been prevented. They are as much as front-line workers, they have been preparing food, sanitizing the city, working as domestic help. They became carriers of the virus because they were forgotten as citymakers and were not accounted for in policy decisions. Tamil Nadu has announced that from May 1, 2021 the vaccination drive will focus on the migrant populations. 

The vaccination policy needs to account for the varied conditions and varied demographics of the migrant population. Will the policy account for the treats of regionalism and vaccine nationalism? A lot of cross-border migration also takes place, policy must account for the same. 

Way Forward 

Prof. Irudaya Rajan suggested that the least the government can do at this time is to provide the migrants with MGNREGA wage of Rs 200 per day. The response of the Delhi Government to provide Rs 5000 to construction workers disadvantages the other sections of migrant workers. These payments must be in the form of advanced payment which can help solve the disability of the migrants. 

Sadly, this wave of the virus migrant crisis will take a back seat when there is a scarcity of resources. All major urban centers have their health care infrastructure failing with an acute shortage of beds, oxygen tanks, required medication. Given these conditions, the overflowing crematoriums only make the conditions worst.  

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Author has expressed similar views in the article | Prioritizing Migrant Workers’ Health, Safety & Welfare