The unfortunate scenes of daily wagers walking for several kilometers in a day, along with their belongings, often remind us of the ‘the privileged concept of social status’ of a few. This was primarily brought about by a lack of jobs and no means of transport to their homelands. They depict grit in their efforts to survive in the midst of delusion. Differing state border controls made their lives further challenging. This article shares an overview of the challenges and warnings that come along with the transportation of migrants within the country. Some of the challenges that come with migration stand doubly compounded with reverse migration in order, even as businesses open.
There are about 40 million informal workers employed in informal jobs like housemaids, security guards, housekeeping, waiters, sales personnel, bell boys, cleaners either in societies or restaurants or luxury hotels. Most of these have been thrown into a tailspin. At least before 5th May 2020, these migrants were stranded at different places, many without basic necessities. Unable to return to their native towns and villages in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and others, they resorted to social media for help and requested state authorities to transport them back to their hometowns. Social media, along with many non-governmental organizations and social activists, helped them with food, water, and other necessities. Despite some succor, the hot and humid weather took a toll on their bodies and minds.
One of the most daunting challenges during the inter-state movement of migrants was tracing the spread of the virus, especially given the long and different modes of transport used to travel. With the Government of India relaxing some rules to begin the transportation process facilitating their intra-state movement in the country (either by rail or bus), the challenges for further spread are likely to increase. Especially with many migrants deciding to come back to urban spaces, this challenge is likely to grow. A free movement of these individuals may act as a critical agent in spurting spread in the next few weeks.
Furthermore, the economic challenges for these migrants have compounded their problems, especially with no or little money. This could lead to the unemployment graph becoming steeper and divisions between rich and poor likely to escalate further. The distribution of economic packages announced by the government is likely to play a critical role in arresting these cascading effects in the next few months. Along with the economic issues, come the technological issues. The migrants are also afflicted by a digital divide in these times when technology has become critical dealing with the COVID-19. Technology can be critical in disseminating information, stopping the spread, preparing a response, and stop misinformation. All these will help in preparing an adequate response to COVID-19. Steps need to be taken in the direction of bridging the digital divide, especially among the migrants and underprivileged.
With elections being deferred for some months due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the migrant issue can be twisted in both positive and negative ways for political parties. The migrant issue should be treated as a humane issue and should not be politicized by any political party. The hardships faced by these migrants should be a reminder for all of us of the necessity to bridge the financial divide in our societies. The hardships faced by the migrants should affect us all at the humane level, leading us to take incremental steps to address this level at the societal level. Issues of this complexity cannot be solved by the government alone. The COVID-19 crisis perhaps came as an opportunity for the state and central governments to take a relook at the migrant situation that often remains eclipsed. A close look at the issue in the post-pandemic phase can help the government to formulate a strategy for the migrants in dealing with future crises. The return of the migrants to their respective states could also prove to be an opportunity for respective state governments by absorbing the migrants into an active workforce.
The world awaits eagerly, the times when we can bid goodbye to the vices that have cropped up due to COVID-19. The return of normalcy to the migrant issue should be a priority!
*** Mrittika Nandy is an Assistant Professor of Serampore Girls’ College, University of Calcutta. She is currently pursuing her Doctoral research on the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility in India at Centre For Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India ***