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COVID-19 and the Migrant Crisis

After the migrant workers lost their sources of livelihood and were in despair, their Karma-bhoomi states should have provided them the same succour which they provided to their locals and yes, voters.

The migrant crisis engendered by Covid-19 shook the conscience of the nation. It was a heart wrenching sight to see thousands of migrant workers leaving their Karma-bhoomi, the cities built up by their sweat & blood to trudge towards their Janma-bhoomi, the states to which they belonged. I am not going to get into the never ending blame games ; there is no use pin pointing who is to be held responsible for the predicament of the migrant workers, the state governments or the central government. But there is no denying the fact that this unfortunate happening has given rise to several pertinent questions that need serious intervention on the part of policymakers and the institutions of democracy. After all, India is a democratic welfare state and such states have always prided themselves on providing welfare services to their citizens from Cradle to the Grave.

No doubt, Covid-19 has led to a reversal in the process of globalization and PM Modi has exhorted the countrymen to be Vocal about Local but Local should have stopped at the Nation with the states staying away from it. Just ponder over the issues related to migrant workers. They were virtually reduced to a football to be kicked at random by the both the central and the state governments. Their Karma-bhoomi states didn’t want them to stay there as they were perceived to be a burden for the state resources after the enforcement of Lockdown & cessation of all economic activities.

Moreover, due to the cyclic nature of employment and lack of documentation, these migrant workers generally don’t have voting rights. Hence state governments having son of soil agenda and adept in playing the regional card ignore them. The workers’ Janma-bhoomi states reacted in two diametrically opposite ways. Some were reluctant to welcome their own state people while some went out of the way to bring back their people stuck in other states. Now, let me ask you a very blunt question “why this my people, your people? Why not, our people? “

India may be a federation with both the units of governance, the Central government and the state governments having a separate list of functions and being independent in their sphere of functioning but this Federation has got to be cooperative. The Constitution has provided that any citizen of the country can buy a property and settle in any part of the country. He can earn livelihood anywhere. It has also provided for a Single Citizenship. After the migrant workers lost their sources of livelihood and were in despair, their Karma-bhoomi states should have provided them the same succour which they provided to their locals and yes, voters.

The migrants were not to be disowned. No one expected, even the Central govt was caught unawares when huge crowds of migrant workers gathered at railway stations in Mumbai and New Delhi. It was blatant regionalism, it was a signal to the migrant workers that they have to fend for themselves and were no longer welcome in the States where they earned their living. The states which splurged crores of rupees on caste community vote bank centric dole outs and subsidies had simply no resources for the migrants.

The problem with the country now is that most of the state governments don’t practice fiscal prudence and misuse the funds; when the need arises, they expect the Centre to do everything for them. Though Health is a subject under the State list, the states seem to be highly unequipped to arrest the Covid threat apart from blaming the Centre for all the ills plaguing them. The health emergency has enabled the Centre to virtually take over the entire states’ machinery to tackle the pandemic. The states have simply behaved as chickens caught in the glare of traffic lights. It’s high time states be given sufficient autonomy and resources to manage such pandemics. These are dangerous portends for the federal structure of the nation.

Most of the migrant workers are engaged in the informal sector which makes up to 90 percent workforce of the country. Unlike the organized labour which have legal statutory rights regulating their employment and the backing of trade unions, the informal sector workers are generally employed through contractors or through their own personal links. They are not protected by statutory legal backing related to their minimum wages, working hours and social security measures. 35 – 40 percent of the economic activities of the urban centres are done in the informal sector. Rather than shedding crocodile tears and showering freebies & financial packages which, in anyway, disappears to a fair extent midstream before reaching the intended beneficiaries.

It’s time to create an identity for the migrant worker. Ration Card should be made portable so that he can get food grains in any part of the country. He should be entitled to get the benefits of all the welfare programmes of his Karma-bhoomi state. The informal working segment should be brought under the ambit of social security measures like employees insurance, contributory provident funds, health schemes etc. A National Commission on Migrants need to be formed, with even a constitutional backing if any need arises, to supervise & suggest measures related to the betterment of migrant workers. Extending voting rights to the migrant workers in the States where they work need to be explored. Just as the central government came up with One Nation One Ration Card, it must also examine the feasibility of One Nation One Voter Card. But of course, it has to be ensured that the migrant votes from only one place, either in his Janma-bhoomi state or his Karma-bhoomi state.

The adoption of this ‘One Nation, One Voter card’ measure has the potential to tide over parochial sentiments of regionalism and strengthen nationalism. At present, the number of migrant workers, including both intra-state and inter state, is no less than 10 crores, hence such decisions will have wide ranging socio-economic and political implications. It is also urgently required that all the recipient states and the source states must maintain a data base of the migrant workers. Maintenance of data base at both the union and the state level will make the task of weeding out Bangladeshi infiltrators & the Rohingyas much easier and strengthen the security of the nation.

The Corona epidemic also showed the Class Bias of democratically elected governments. While the central government left no stones unturned to bring back Indians stranded in foreign countries, the migrant workers were virtually left abandoned in their long walks back to their native places.

Hopefully, the pandemic will lead to some soul searching and lead to adoption of some policy measures so that such unfortunate incidents don’t get repeated in future. When Mahatma Gandhi talked about Gram Swarajya and the self contained Village Republics, people laughed at him. Ambedkar wanted the lower caste people to move towards the cities where the precincts of factories would provide them an anonymous existence, away from the caste hierarchy ridden villages, which for him, were dens of exploitation, feudalism and ignorance. Nehru wanted big industries, big public sector corporations which were to be the temples of modern India. Urban centers were to be the growth poles.

Today, one out of every three Indians, lives in an urban place and around 70 percent of our economic activities do take place in cities. Agriculture is in perpetual decay, small scale industry is dwindling and the rural life has lost its charm. The bigger urban centers like Delhi, Mumbai, Surat and Chennai have seen the worst of Corona. Around half of the population of these cities are made of slum dwellers. High population density has made a mockery of social distancing norms. Being the hub of commercial activities, these cities accept a lot of travelers, both from within India and from outside, on a daily basis. The bigger cities must be de-congested and more and more industries need to shift to Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns.

It’s time to think why some states like Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh have not still being able to develop themselves to such an extent that their local population is absorbed and doesn’t feel the need to go outside the state for work. Can the balanced development of the nation take place when you see developed western & southern states and the under developed states of the eastern part of the nation? Rampant, indiscriminate and unplanned urbanization has led to new problems. Just imagine how a few hours of rain virtually drown cities like Chennai and Mumbai. Urbanization has not only played havoc with our environment but it has also led to social turmoil and conflicts. The urban dwellers have transformed into people without souls. It is time to reverse the clock. Smart Cities make no sense when there are more than 6 lakh villages in despair.

Make villages the nerve centre of our national life. Let villages become the basic unit of our planning endeavours. When Gandhi talked about Gram Swarajya, he meant villages that would take care of all its social, economic and cultural needs. His emphasis on small scale cottage industries was for strengthening the rural economies in which villagers would find work and there would be no need for them to travel outside for work.

The policy making must shift to creation of vibrant rural economies based on local resources and local skills. The panchyats and the local bodies must be freed from the clutches of the state governments, adequate resources must be allotted to them and they must have the autonomy to take their own decisions. More than dole outs and subsidies, the villagers need infrastructure and creation of productive assets. And for this, the state needs to make massive public expenditure to kick-start the rural economies.

And lastly but not the least, let us come to the labour reforms. Rigid labour protection laws have only helped the organised labour. The crying need of the hour is to make the laws flexible so as to meet the needs of both the workers and the employers. Industrial Dispute Act needs amendment so that employers don’t hesitate to employ labour as per their needs. The wage gap between contractual informal labour and formal organised labour needs to be regulated by imposition of a ceiling. The agricultural markets need new laws. The farmer must have the freedom to sell his products anywhere; the middlemen between the farmers and the buyers must vanish. It is encouraging to see states like UP and MP working in the direction of labour reforms and agricultural markets. Amidst adversity lies immense opportunity. It’s up to the policy makers to grab the opportunities with both hands.

 

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.

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The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
This post was created with our nice and easy submission form. Create your post!

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