Imminent Concerns: Unorganized Workers and Interstate Migrants
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Imminent Concerns: Unorganized Workers and Interstate Migrants

By Dr. Amitabh Kundu
Distinguished Fellow, Research and Information System for Developing Countries

Imminent Concerns: Unorganized Workers and Interstate Migrants

There are three different viruses spreading dangerously in the country. The most serious is that of COVID 19. The two others that are potentially equally dangerous for the long term wellbeing of the people pertaining to data and prediction. Besides the public and private websites that are coming up with varying estimates, with continuous updating of data about incidence, death, and recovery, there is social media and ‘I heard from reliable sources’. Berserk data are being churned out and in the atmosphere of panic, people are willing to believe anything and indulge in behavior, detrimental to individual and societal health. The dangers of the prediction virus can be assessed from the panic created by popular projections that the number of confirmed cases and that of a casualty are directly proportional to a number of tests that are conducted. The number of infected cases in India is predicted in millions in the coming month.

One must recognize that tests conducted on high-risk cases that have shown symptoms or travel history and those put under some kind of quarantine have not increased the number of confirmed cases alarmingly. The number will be even less when tests are conducted on a low-risk population. Given the high alert and awareness about Corona danger in slums, low-income colonies and even in rural areas (that are not allowing the returnee migrants to enter the villages), the possibility that households are not taking their patients with symptom to hospitals, apprehending harassment, refusal, high expenditures or catching infections during treatment, etc. is unlikely to be very high. Given the low level of physical interaction between the workers in organized and unorganized sectors and spatial segmentation of rich and poor even in many public places in India, the rate of infection so far has been low. Hopefully, the country will be able to contain this before it enters the third stage. Understandably the cases will go up but at a much lower rate than that of the number of tests, particularly due to lockdown in the country, which is generally welcomed by the people. There are, on the other hand, predictions that this risk factor is exaggerated for taking political advantages by creating panic in the country. Their voices would become louder once the rate of infection is brought down to a manageable level. If the number does not go down the management of the crisis would be blamed.

Not many have opposed the lockdown but argued that the institutional preparation for this, in terms of providing support to migrant laborers, unorganized workers, legitimate mobility of common people and those with special problems have not been planned and communicated to people and implementers at the grass-root level. The implications of the lockdown at the community level are unclear even to the implementing agencies. Does this mean everyone remains captive, not stepping out of the premises even for the purchase of medicine, food and other essential items, household emergency and constitutional walk? If so, has a system of doorstep delivery and safety in the transaction at the door been operationalized? Alternately, if the lockdown permits people to be out of the house or the colony within the city for genuine purposes, how its misuse will be detected and penalized? In case permission for travel beyond the city or state, limits have to be allowed in exceptional cases, its modus operandi needs to be institutionalized. Twenty-one days is a long period for over 300 million-plus households for assuming no grave exigency requiring anyone to step out. It would nonetheless be important to ensure that the relaxations do not open up the possibility of vested interest playing foul in our hierarchical society.

Image Attribute: Migrant workers and their families queue to board a train at Mumbai railway station after government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings in attempts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 / Source: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Image Attribute: Migrant workers and their families queue to board a train at Mumbai railway station after government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings in attempts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 / Source: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

Involving the community or civil society in a big way is a challenge since this may compromise safety concerns. Importantly, the middle class based civil society has already become active in implementing the lockdown to protect its interest. Without any administrative control, this is leading to targeting people of certain regions, belonging to certain professions and slum populations. Also, this results in ignoring the concerns of the people who have special needs or are trapped in an exigency like daily wage workers, those taking care sick/disabled or separated from a family from employment reasons.

Despite such risks, the government, private sector, and civil society partnership can be effective and in fact help in bringing down the security risks. A major problem of movement in the period of lockdown is that of about 65 million interstate migrants, 33 percent of them being workers. By conservative estimates, 30 percent of the latter are casual workers and another 30 percent work on a regular basis but in the informal sector. This would mean about 12 million people, who are at the risk of losing employment, are residing in states other than that of their origin. The street vendors amounting to about 8 million can also be placed in this vulnerable category. Many among them have lost the means of their subsistence and started leaving their place of residence and have been stranded in different cities. The government which is rightly bringing back the Indians from Corona affected countries could easily provide safe transportation to the migrants who desperately want to go back to their homes, rather than allowing them to travel in jam-packed compartments/buses or to fend for themselves.

The present strategy of the government does not preclude the participation of the community. Even helping nine poor families every day during Navaratra, as proposed, would mean exposing the households to unsafe interactions, unless it is institutionalized. Unless the logistic issues are sorted out immediately and communicated to the lowest level of administration and common people, there will be serious management issues, besides protest and intragroup violence at the community level.

State governments must work with the private corporate sector and non-governmental organizations including those of the workers, to ensure that there is no massive loss of employment. Central funds could be used along with that of the state and private companies for this purpose while civil society organizations can be engaged in provisioning of travel, food, stay and medical checkup for the period required, under the safety supervision of public authorities. Attempts must be made to ensure that a large majority of these people remain at their present place and are taken care of. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for 25 percent and 14 percent of the total interstate migrants, followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, recording figures over 5 percent each. It would be very difficult to control the pandemic when they return home after all their travails enroute. They will be just another unemployed in the household. Taking care of them at their current locations would be a major step in ensuring that the COVID 19 does not make inroads into the interiors of the backward regions of the county where provisioning of adequate medical assistance would not be challenging. It would be impossible.

About the Author:

Dr. Amitabh Kundu is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi. He was Regional Advisor on Poverty at UNESCWA, Beirut during 2017 and Consultant to the Government of Sri Lanka during 2016. Until January 2014, he was Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has been the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and has served as a member of the National Statistical Commission during 2006-08. Currently, he is chairing a Committee for Swatch Bharat Mission and associated as a mentor with Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

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