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The Migrant Humanitarian Crisis Could Have Been Averted

In an exclusive interview to The Lede, Dr Shashi Tharoor says that while some states like Kerala made a bipartisan effort to reach out to migrants and ensure their well-being, in states where the BJP is in power, the performance has been quite abysmal.

Q: India is witnessing the worst migrant crisis in its history. The unofficial toll is nearly 200 due to road accidents and hunger. Do you feel that it is the unplanned lockdown that had led to this crisis?

Tharoor: I think the government’s short-sightedness and, in some cases, deliberate indifference to the welfare of our migrant workers is undoubtedly the main driving cause behind the present crisis.

Even the one thing that most people agree that the Centre got right, which was to declare a lockdown at a relatively early stage, was also undermined by the way they did it – their complete mismanagement in treating our migrant workers, which resulted in an unprecedented scramble to return to their homes, amid panic, chaos, and tragedy. Some 200 migrant workers have died on their way home, run over by trucks or trains, or of sheer exhaustion.

Q: What could they have done to prevent this from taking place?

Tharoor: To start with, the government could have offered more notice for a national lockdown, before shutting down the trains and highways, which could have allowed these workers to either return to their respective states or make necessary arrangements in the areas they were at the time residing in.

Since they did not, the centre could have worked with the states to not just issue clear guidelines for inter-district and inter-state transportation of migrants but could have run dedicated transport corridors to bring those who wished to return.

We all know the unnecessary miscommunication and drama that took place when special trains were operationalized for these groups and yet there was no clarity on who would be paying for their tickets.

Finally, there are several other concrete measures that the government could have undertaken to ensure that adequate resources and support were provided to these groups.

My party (Indian National Congress) has repeatedly urged the government to take up many of these – from ensuring access to food through the PDS system to transferring Rs 10,000 to each individual using the existing Jan Dhan bank accounts, reversing the decision to suspend many of our labour laws, and so on.

If these steps had been followed and if some of these policy measures been rolled out in advance by the government, I am confident that much of the present crisis could have been averted and we would not have had to see the kind of hardships and loss of lives that have taken place.

Q: The Indian government had announced a Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package in a bid to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. But has this stimulus package addressed the immediate need of migrant workers?

Tharoor: It took 50 days since the commencement of the national lockdown for the government to announce a financial package.

And the numbers don’t add up anyway: the real figure of new money in the stimulus package is, by all accounts, way short of 20 lakh crores. That in itself should tell you all you need to know on the subject of whether the package has addressed the immediate needs of migrant workers.

These are groups that are still walking on our roads and highways in a desperate attempt to make it back to their homes.

Q: Even if we ignore the fine print of the announcements, a package with grand proposals and long-term measures will do little to address their immediate plight. What then is the use of the government’s grandstanding and soaring rhetoric on reviving our economy tomorrow when it simply fails to take care of the engines of that economy today?

Tharoor: Do you feel that the central government is washing its hands off by putting the onus of state governments when it comes to migrant workers’ issues?

I do think that is the case. Much of the present crisis could have been easily addressed had the central government adopted a more humane and nuanced approach that was mindful of the concerns of our migrant workers.

The Prime Minister even failed to bring it up during his address to the nation while declaring that a national lockdown would be imminent. Did he not foresee what such a declaration would have done to these groups or have at least a basic awareness of the kind of chaos and panic that would be generated in the wake of his sudden announcement?

The central government’s largely myopic approach to this issue has conclusively shown us one of two things – either they didn’t have the necessary experience or awareness of their actions and their implications, or they have simply turned a blind eye to those who have in many ways been the true builders and architects of the India we cherish. Neither does the government any credit.

There are merits in adopting a decentralized approach to this problem and asking states to work out the logistical and welfare-related challenges of catering to these groups.

But on the one hand, this government has crippled the financial autonomy of the states by their centralized approach, for example on taxation, while they have withheld a significant portion of much overdue GST payments to the states. They then dare to essentially abdicate their responsibilities and ask states to fend for themselves during a crisis period. That is a recipe for disaster.

Q: Will this new One Ration, One Card be helpful for migrant workers?

Tharoor: In principle, it is a welcome idea. But like we have seen on multiple occasions with this government, the difference between the utility of these ideas on paper and their effectiveness, in reality, has often been immense. We are talking essentially about a medium to long term intervention but that will have little value for our workers who are suffering right now.

Q: Would you be able to list down three measures, which can address the crisis faced by migrants on the road?

Tharoor: As mentioned previously, I think three principal challenges that were not sufficiently addressed were that of communication, transportation, and provision of essentials.

If the government had communicated their intention of implementing a national lockdown in advance, along with issuing a clear set of guidelines to all states on how migrant workers should be treated, a lot of the chaos and confusion that we saw could have been easily averted.

Just as many of us would have liked to, the government should have also realized that with economic activity down and a pandemic spreading, these workers would have naturally wanted to return to their respective homes and families.

Appreciating such realities, the government should have worked in coordination with their counterparts in the states to ensure that logistical arrangements including transportation (but also other mandatory pre-travel requirements like tests and checkups) were arranged in sufficient quantity to cater to what could have easily been predicted to be a strong rush.

And finally, where it was either logistically impossible or if a particular group of workers was okay with staying put where they were a strong supply chain should have been created to ensure that essentials, such as food and medicine but also items like mobile recharge so that they can communicate with their families back home, were provided on a war footing.

Similarly, it would have been crucial to ensuring that these groups were given financial resources through direct cash transfers which would have allowed them to tide throughout the lockdown and the halt in economic activity.

Q: Reports in the public domain reveal that 45 crore workers in the unorganised sectors in India are not unionised. The majority of the workers in the unorganised sector are migrants. Do you feel that even the trade unions have been silent in addressing the migrant workers’ issues?

Tharoor: I don’t think that has been the case. Many trade unions have been quite vocal in registering their protest against the failings of the government and the inadequacies in dealing with issues facing migrant workers.

And yet, we must appreciate that we are currently facing a national lockdown and there is only a limited way in which such groups (and others such as political parties and civil society outfits) can push back against the government.

It would not be realistic to assume that anyone group can take over the overall responsibility and duties of the government.

Q: Do you feel that the central and state governments are serious about migrant workers’ issues?

Tharoor: I think the report card is decidedly mixed. Some states, like in Kerala where a bipartisan effort was made from the start to reach out to these groups and ensure their well-being, have demonstrated a credible concern for migrant workers’ issues backed by concrete action.

On the other hand, both at the centre and in states where the BJP is in power, the performance has been quite abysmal, with no clear communication or strategy in place to address the issue or even a concerted effort to develop the necessary infrastructure to ensure that these people are looked after in those states.

Q: Some of the state governments are truncating the Labour Laws citing the COVID-19 situation. Will the wages of migrant workers fall again? Will the migrant workers be exploited more? Will they be forced to migrate again looking for better wages?

Tharoor: The timing and the motive behind suspending these laws are certainly worrying since it essentially shuts the door on many of the rights of our migrant workers at a time when they are already suffering. Labour law reform does not mean labour law abolition! It is a brazen and undignified affront to the welfare of these groups that would force them to reconsider working in these states at all.

Q: Will the migrant workers return if the COVID-19 crisis ends? If so, why? And if not, why?

Tharoor: It is a tough question to answer at this stage. On one hand, given the ordeals our migrant workers have faced in these last few months, there would surely be a strong sense of mistrust and concern among many of them which would make them reconsider the prospect of returning to places where they were essentially abandoned and forced to fend for themselves.

At the same time, many of these migrants are also people who migrated in the first place because they could not make ends meet where they were.

Survival has its imperatives, and ultimately such necessities of sustenance would naturally mean that they cannot afford to discard the prospect of returning to where the jobs are.

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