As the pandemic’s second wave surges to an unprecedented level, prompting several States to impose fresh restrictions, the migrant workers are again heading home, evoking bitter memories of last year when a national lockdown was announced out of the blue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to the migrant workers to stay put at their respective places and his assurance of help have not helped in any way to instil confidence among them. The exodus of workers in the congested and overcrowded trains and buses is fraught with the danger of becoming super spreader events. The State governments must incentivise them to stay put. However, going by the bitter experiences last year, the workers don’t trust the governments any more. The Centre has failed to set up a strong social security net for migrant workers. Niti Aayog’s 2021 policy framework on migrant labour has a range of workable recommendations. These include developing a central database for migrants; setting up a social security safety net — health cards, access to schools, extension of public distribution system (PDS) services, and provision of psycho-social assistance and adequate housing. Unfortunately, no follow-up action has been taken. As more cities come under the contagion’s grip and as the governments start enforcing curfews and partial lockdowns, the migrant workers who had just started to resettle in the cities after returning to their jobs a few months ago, are now rushing back. The trains going to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the biggest sources of migrant workers, are leaving Mumbai, Lucknow, Delhi-NCR and Ahmedabad with standing room only.
Even though most of the workers know that they are returning to joblessness and penury, they seem to prefer starving at home among their loved ones than be stranded in an alien place without any social security, hope or helping hand from the governments. The Centre, which had last year announced a stimulus for the migrant poor to tide over the crisis, is silent on the emergency emerging from the exodus 2.0. The fresh wave of exodus will seriously impede the economic recovery amidst surging infections and dwindling activity. Accounting for over 20% of the total workforce, migrant labour is vital to every sector of the economy, especially the informal, and medium and small enterprises. The representatives of the industry and trade bodies have rightly voiced their concerns over the economic consequences of reverse migration. Though most State governments and the Centre had ruled out total lockdown this time, the message seems to be lost on the unnerved workers. Apart from universalising the PDS, the Centre must consider expanding the rural employment guarantee scheme to urban areas and providing direct cash transfers to the needy to mitigate the situation.
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