The Forgotten: The Stranded Migrant Workers

There is no section in our country that remains unaffected by the difficulties caused by the affliction that is COVID- 19, however it’s safe to assume that, the most gravely affected by the crisis are the underprivileged labourers and workers. Their agony, their pain, their ordeal cannot be expressed in words. Who amongst us cannot understand and feel what they and their families are going through.

More than 92.5% labourers, including daily wage earners, have lost work and are unemployed owing to the lockdown imposed by the country, according to a survey of migrant workers in north and central India. This is despite the labour ministry’s plea to owners and contractors not to retrench workers.

Why are the migrant workers so hard hit during lock down?

The answer is pretty simple, while many people have lost the jobs, it’s the migrant workers that have lost their only livelihood without any fall-back support. They don’t have any fixed income, health insurance ot savings. They get paid in wages, only if they work, most of them being employed in the informal sector. They are also devoid of sufficient monetary resources to sustain themselves and their families (who are dependent on them) during the unemployment period. Further, they are the only groups who have been displaced from their normal place of residence. Nearly six lakhs migrant labourers are stranded in government camps. They are more vulnerable to corona virus infection as they have repeatedly failed to observe social distancing die to their special living conditions and full dependence on public transport.

The aforementioned consequences may have the following impact if they aren’t monitored and checked by the government and the respective agencies. They might have to draw loans in order to sustain themselves with their home or land they own as the collateral. It might push them further into economic insecurity and instability. The education of their children will also be affected, even during the post lockdown period as they might be unable to afford the fees. If left unaddressed, it might put the migrant labour under tremendous mental pressure and strain, leading to a substantial rise in mental health issues in the community. It’ll also widen the gap between the rich and the poor, thus leading to increased economic inequality. There are possibilities of increased exploitation in terms of employment compensation in the post lockdown period, when a lot of people will be looking for work in an economy which was already suffering from unemployment.

How did their future become so grim?

When the Indian government announced a lockdown with just a four hours warning, large numbers of migrant workers all over the country were left stranded, with no idea of where to go and what to do. No arrangements had been made for them, whether to transport them back or to house them in shelters. As a result, there were tragic consequences. Panicked migrant workers going to buses and train stations and getting beaten by Police or being sprayed with bleach. Thousands of migrant workers trying to walk back hundreds of kilometres to their villages, with many dying on the way. I guess the decision makers seemingly forgot about the most vulnerable people while deciding, why? When they could arrange transport for pilgrims and students, why was no thought put in about what would happen to migrant workers? Why is it that only the NRIs were retrieved from affected areas? Is it because they are voiceless and they don’t have a pressure group.

Even if they were forgotten about while planning the lockdown, there was still a means to rectify the mistake. Day after lockdown, a relief package was announced by government for the vulnerable section, which ended up being too little and too late. As soon as the lockdown was announced, this section immediately lost their jobs and because of the sustenance nature of livelihood, they immediately ran out of food and basic necessity. The moment lockdown was announced, all the relief should have been announced simultaneously. The gap between the announcement of lockdown and the announcement of relief package was enough to create panic in these sections and due to uncertainty they started taking the extreme step of walking back on foot to their home. And soon the situation got out of control. Because remember, we are not talking about a handful of people, not even thousands, they are millions in number.

There was still a scope of avoiding the unfateful. All the states had enough resources and means to take care of all these workers but they failed to pacify and communicate to them. The situation came to a point that state government had to announce for hundreds of buses to carry them home in such a condition, loosing the very purpose of lockdown. The risk of people dying of hunger became believe than the outbreak itself.

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