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Vol. XXX No. 4, June 1-15, 2020

Migrant Issue Should be Calmed before it Overwhelms Covid Control

by A Special Correspondent

Interstate migrant workers wanting to be with their families back home in this hour of national pandemic crisis is understandable, but the demand it makes on the country’s logistic capacity is a nightmare. It threatens to undermine the nation-wide struggle to overcome the virus.

The disturbing feature is that we do not know how deep the problem is. There is no reliable data broken down to individuals, names, work location, the State to which they belong, date of arrival etc. Strictly speaking, the highest priority for the Government is to assist inter-state migrants residing temporarily in the host state. Next in priority would be inter-state migrants of long-term residence in the state of adoption – those residing for several years. Without reliable data on hand, it is difficult to determine eligibility and estimate the time and resources needed to accomplish the relocation. State and Central governments are perhaps under greater pressure than is warranted as every migrant, temporary or permanent, wants to be united with his/her family in a distant place here and now.

The Census is not very helpful in assessing the number of interstate migrant workers in each State. In the eye of the Census, anyone with a different address from the previous survey is a migrant. That is too broad a definition to be of use for our purpose. The Economic Survey 2016 estimated the aggregate as about 9 million in the country, 92 per cent of them males, moving between states. The growth rate of migrant labour is estimated at 4.5 per cent per year and, therefore, the present inter-state migrant population may be about 11 million. As for Tamil Nadu, a government-commissioned study estimated inter-state migrants in the State to be “more than a million”. So, the national number of inter-state migrants could be 11 million and about 1 million in Tamil Nadu. The Ministry of Home Affairs still quotes the census figure of 4 crore migrants all of which are not inter-state migrants. Apart from speculative ­omnibus numbers, ­disaggregated data on different migrant categories seems to be unavailable for ­prioritisation and planning.

To make the problem manageable, inter-state migrants from neighbouring States could have been isolated and dealt with separately. The pictures in the media of whole families of men, women and children gives the impression that many permanently residing migrants in other States are also in a hurry to “go home” although their families are with them. They can be evacuated easily by shuttle buses dropping them off at the screening centres at or near the border. They could accept a lower priority till general conditions improve, as many seem to have their immediate families with them.

Going by Railway’s performance of movement of migrants by Shramik Specials, it seems possible to move 1.3 lakhs per day, nationally, allotted among the ten host States as 13,000 per day from each State. It would take three months to take them all home, if those eligible are over one crore. If the number to be moved is 4 crores and if Railways double the offtake – as it is reported at the time of writing – it would still take about six months. It is a major population transfer exercise involving multiple criss-crossings of the sub-continent.

Trains cannot be scheduled till the migrants’ home States are ready to receive them after arranging facilities for screening, quarantine and treatment. Their resources are already stretched to the maximum in battling with the virus; they are, understandably, unable to cope with fresh arrivals and the additional number of positive covid cases they may bring along. It is a sensitive situation when they cannot but decline to receive their own kith and kin.

On all sides, we seem to be gridlocked. There is one option worth trying – explain to migrants the severe constraints that make early evacuation impossible, seek their understanding and patience in waiting for their turn, while offering them safe shelter in fully equipped transit camps as containment zones, within an hour’s reach of bus junctions and rail stations. As the season for returning to work would set in even before all are evacuated, offer an incentive to stay on – a bulk sum per adult equivalent to the cost of translocation, including food etc, which is saved by the State. Additionally, those who opt to stay on, should be given a weekly cash allowance till July end or till they are called for work, whichever is later. Migrants agreeing to wait and stay back, must be looked after with compassion, care and concern in these difficult times when they are separated from their near and dear. Staying back must be an attractive, irresistible option in terms of money. This calls for a major public relations exercise with the cooperation of all political parties in both the host and home States. Executed successfully it might substantially reduce the numbers wanting to go home. Explaining the ground realities to the migrants would also wean them away from falling prey to rumours, fake news and malicious instigations.

Temporary transit camps should be installed in a couple of weeks on a war footing, providing facilities – food, shelter, sanitation, water, entertainment, recreation, facility to speak to their homes everyday free of charge and counselling.

It is time that the central government published every week the following state-wise data – number of inter-state migrants, number opting to stay on, net number wanting to go home, number vacated previous week, cumulative number vacated, balance number awaiting return journey. That would show where the transfer pace is lagging and why. It would also show how far we are from the end of the tunnel.

This is not the time to review whether the migrant issue is man-made or god-made or what and who went wrong. Nor is now the occasion to rummage for credit. Corona containment is a matter of national survival and nothing should, or be allowed to, prevail over that objective. Setting aside political differences, all parties must rise to the occasion to resolve the migrant issue, and, thereby, tame the Covid 19 threat. These problems are beyond the scope and capability of any one agency or party. They can be overcome only by collective statesmanship – and should be, before it is too late.

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