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Covid-19 And Migrants In India: A Worrisome Affair

COVID-19 has been particularly brutal to the migrant workers. More than 80 percent of them lost their employment and other means of livelihood. As the Indian State decided to stop trains and bus operations in haste, many destitute and desperate migrant workers started walking to their home towns and villages.  Later, when images of walking migrant workers on highways, cases of accidents and deaths, at times because of starvation started flashing, eventually their problems became headlines of the national and international media. The Government of India, by now unsettled with these developments, changed its position and intra-State movement of workers was permitted; subsequently, a limited number of train and bus services were also started to carry stranded inter-state workers to their homes. Nevertheless, by then, tens of thousands of workers have/had preferred walking because of either unavailability or a very limited number of trains. Reports have brought to our notice instances of migrants being asked to pay full train fare which many of them, of course, could not afford.

Another aspect of the Government’s response to dealing with the crisis of the pandemic was a relief package, eventually announced in a bizarre and an episodic manner. Initially, to deal with the COVID-19 related crisis, the Union Government released a relief package of INR 1.70 lakh crore, and then on 12 May 2020 another overall INR 20 lakh crore relief package was announced. Beyond the severe criticism for not only being grossly inadequate and neglecting the immediate needs of the poor and migrants, but the announced package has also left many questions unanswered. In addition, the package could not, as it is claimed by many reputed economists and policy analysts, put forward a roadmap for revival of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and promoting the agenda of liberalization and Privatisation. In these contexts, it will be interesting to examine how many government initiatives will ‘trickle down’ to ameliorate the conditions of migrant workers. One also needs a detailed examination of the short terms measures (relief packages) along with the long term provisions (loan etc.) to gauge the severity of the situation and evaluate liberal democracy’s response to this extraordinary situation of the whole world is grappling with.

With an attempt to exact maximum gain out of the stressful circumstances in which laborers are, the Indian States such as Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan rushed to carry out reforms in their labor laws through ordinances in order to promote labor employment flexibility and relaxed several labor protective measures. These reforms, as ordinances say, are temporary to attract investments and assure investors of trouble-free industrial climate in the respective States. At the same time, the downsizing of firms has been taking place all along these periods. Several start-ups and the majority of MSMEs stare at the bleak future prospects. All these developments have widened the scope of extraction of labor in the most inhuman ways possible. Caught in this quagmire of unemployment and poverty, a large population of India is suddenly thrown in front of the capitalist class as bait.

In such circumstances, it will be challenging to discern the rapidly changing socio-economic and political dynamics of India in particular and South Asia and the world, in general. While the number of corona virus-infected cases and deaths have continued to rise, albeit at a faster pace in recent times, gradually the discourse is moving from migrants and immediate relief to them to easing of the lockdown, the revival of economic and commercial activities, dealing with returnees, facilitating migrants re-return to economic growth centers, elections in states where they are scheduled in near future, and long-term structural reforms in various sectors of the economy including agriculture and services.

The COVID-19, it has been argued and has brought to center-stage of migrant discourse fault lines in the Indian society such as class, caste, gender, religion, and ethnicity that tend to magnify in crisis situations. On the other hand, the failure of the State to stand with and care for its toiling classes, particularly migrants (and also specific sections within migrants) has once again intensified debate how state, democracy, citizenship, market, and right to life and livelihoods mean differently to different groups of people. However, the gradual but impending impact of the pandemic is likely to bring about far-reaching changes the way politics functions, push for liberalization and privatization is used, urban is reconceptualized and the worker's organizations go about organizing them.

This is high to talk about myriads of intricate issues – social, economic, and political -linked with migrant workers' situation during COVID-19 in India and also make an attempt to examine the conditions of migrant workers in the post-lockdown or post-pandemic situation. We need to look into the various dimensions in relation to the migrants in the Country. Such as social dimensions, economic dimension, and political dimensions. The state should be in the capacity with respect to immediate relief, shelter, feeding, and quarantine. Proper short term and long term policies should be made. They are the most vulnerable and major chunk of the society and hence, there is an utmost need for a proper policy that can benefit them in the normal course as well as in the time of crisis.


PRIYANKA SINGH, LLM Graduate from National Law University, Orissa.

Editor: Vijayalakshmi Raju

You can contact the author at advpsinghchauhan@gmail.com

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