Rajat Sharma

Allowing migrant workers to return home is a step in the right direction

akb0612After more than a month of nationwide lockdown, Ministry of Home Affairs on Wednesday issued order allowing inter-state movement by road of migrant labourers, students, pilgrims and tourists after following strict health protocols. The ministry said, “there has been tremendous gains and improvement in the situation because of lockdown till now”. The MHA modified clause 17 of its April 15 guidelines while allowing inter-state movement of people, subject to the state governments agreeing to take back these people by buses.

This is good news for lakhs of migrant workers stranded in many states who want to return to their homes. Already, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath had sent buses to bring back students from Kota, Rajasthan. These students will return to their homes only after spending 14 days in quarantine centers. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Assam governments also sent buses to bring back their students, while the West Bengal government on Wednesday began evacuation of its students in buses which will return to Kolkata, Asansol and Siliguri. Similarly, Maharashtra government have sent 72 buses to bring back its 1,700 students from Kota.

The Centre has asked all states and UTs to designate nodal authorities and develop standard protocols for receiving and sending these stranded persons. In the last five weeks, I know of many persons who were stuck outside their states while in course of their work or medical treatment or tourism. Several of them had requested me to arrange for their return to their home states but the lockdown norms were so strict that I had to tell them to wait till the Coronavirus pandemic subsides. I am happy that the Centre has now decided to allow them to return.

The doubling rate of Corona cases which was 3 days earlier, later eased to 10 days and now, for the last three days, it has further eased to 11.5 days. In order to get permission, a person or group of persons will have to apply online to the designated nodal officer, who in turn will contact the nodal officer in the receiving states, and arrange for inter-state movement. Buses will have to be sanitized and social distancing will have to be enforced for passengers sitting inside the buses. The permission will be from end point to end point, and there will be no need to get permission from states through which the buses will pass.

There are several reasons behind the Centre’s decision to allow these stranded persons to return. One, the need to stop migrant labourers from walking long distances in summer heat; Two, patience of people stranded in different states is running out as the lockdown approached its 40th day; Three, most of the migrant workers were living in slum areas where social distancing was difficult to maintain and they could be prone to catch the virus easily; and last, but not the least, since these stranded workers had no work and their savings have dwindled, the only alternative left was allowing them to return to their homes where they could protect their health and at least get work under MGNREGA for subsistence.

I had discussed in detail the migrant workers issue with two ministers on Tuesday. My suggestion was that since there are hardly any vehicles on the national and state highways, and the state governments have entire fleets of buses at their command, there should be meticulous planning in sending back the migrant workers and other stranded persons.

Waiting for lockdown to end and then allowing these workers to return en masse would be disastrous. The day bus and train services resume, millions of workers and other passengers will flock to railway stations and bus terminals, throwing social distancing norms to the wind. The very purpose of lockdown will be defeated. It will be difficult to keep huge crowds under control at railway stations and bus terminals.

Questions were raised whether allowing movement of workers will not lead to spread of virus to the states. I pointed out the protocol set by UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government. His government made the 14-day quarantine mandatory for all students who were brought from Kota. This prevented the pandemic from spreading in the districts. People in villages on their own set up quarantine centers in school buildings, provided meals to those who returned and avoided contact with them.

I believe, people living in rural India are mature enough to understand the need for social distancing norms. They are the best persons to enforce quarantine in their respective villages. Had these migrant workers continued to stay in the urban slums and hovels, they could have started dying either from hunger or from the pandemic.

Apart from allowing return of stranded persons, the Centre is now formulating guidelines for further relaxation of lockdown norms from May 4 in Orange and Green zones, where the pandemic has not affected human lives much. These relaxations will ensure that normal life is restored and economic activity is resumed. The Centre may allow graded reopening of market places and shopping malls.

Only the Red zones that include the metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Chennai, may not get immediate relief because of a large number of hot spots.

From an overall point of view, the priorities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government are clear. The Centre first released funds to poor people, particularly women and farmers, so that they should not be financially handicapped during the lockdown period. This helped to a large extent in stemming the spread of the pandemic in rural areas. It then allowed industries located in rural areas to resume work. Now it has allowed return of stranded migrant workers to their home states.

The final stage will be a crucial one. The pandemic has to be controlled in the Red zone (our metros) and the number of hot spots will have to be reduced. That is where the decisive battle against Coronavirus pandemic will be fought.

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