The management of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak in India has been full of contradictions. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 24 to prevent the spread of the infection, he told everyone to stay where they were. But when the lockdown was extended on April 14, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers ran out of patience and spilled out on roads to walk back home, several hundred km for many of them. Newspapers were full of stories about people walking with their bare minimums, television news channels replete with stories of people walking home with small children and paltry sums of money in their pocket.
This happened because people got restless and wanted to be with their own people even if they got infected and eventually died. The business shut, their employers didn’t give them wages, there was no food and to make things worse, there was uncertainty over future. No one knew when their employers will restart their businesses and for how long they will have to be locked down in their small, one-room houses, mostly in shanties, without work and without food.
The poor are more worried about food than health. The Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes coronavirus disease, couldn’t bound them down. They wanted to be home where at least there won’t be danger of food. And even if there was crisis there, too, they would at least be on their motherland. The company of family is a big security to anyone, the poor or otherwise. Remember how we feel safe when surrounded by family and friends even in the toughest phases of our lives.
Some states, such as Rajasthan, even organised roadways buses to take them to border of native states of the workers on the highways.
This was against the Prime Minister’s appeal to people to stay wherever they were.
After a few days, the ministry of home affairs got strict and wrote to states to stop the movement. Put them in temporary shelters and provide them food, the MHA told the states. The hundreds of thousands of workers were now locked down in a different setting, in different lands.
In another setting, about 40,000 students were in Kota where they came with dreams of making it to country’s top medical and engineering institutes and were getting restless because the entrance exams were postponed indefinitely and their parents suddenly became worried about their wellbeing even though nothing had changed in the situation the students were in, say, two months ago – they stayed in PGs and hostels, ate in mess or from meals delivered to their doorstep and studied; the only difference was now they weren’t going to the coaching institutes for regular lessons. Many of the students, who come to Kota, are from affluent families – how else would they be able to afford exorbitant coaching fees and manage a dummy school – and when the rich are in trouble, the government bent their back to change rules.
Uttar Pradesh government was the first to do this. The state government got curfew passes from the Kota district administration and sent buses to ferry its students to Agra and Jhansi, not too far from the coaching city. About 18,000 students, belonging to UP and Uttarakhand, left Kota in buses over two days. This led to demand from other states, too. Every state wanted to bring their students from Kota. One state after the other began coordinating with Rajasthan government and buses kept coming to and going out of Kota. Smiling faces of students, peering out of bus windows, made for good pictures.
This was again a contradiction to the Prime Minister’s appeal.
But even as the rule to stay wherever you are applied to the migrant workers in shelters, thousands of students from Kota reached home.
No one thought about a bigger number of migrant workers locked down in quarantine centres and shelters. Rajasthan was the first state to flag this. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot raised this with the Centre. He said let’s send these people also home and allow states to bring their natives from other states. Rajasthan didn’t wait for a guideline on this from the Centre and began sending and receiving migrant workers. It launched a portal for registration and a helpline for migrant workers to reach out to government if they wanted to do inter-state travels. Senior bureaucrats were given responsibility to organize this after coordinating with respective state governments and district administrations. Mobile numbers of these officers were circulated and their phone began ringing – everyone wanted to return home in the face of a third extension to the lockdown on May 3.
The MHA issued the guidelines on April 29, allowing inter-state travels in buses organised by governments and mandated screening before and after the travels. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers will be with their families at least after 40 days. This is a good step but a delayed one.
What has changed between April 15, when the Centre stopped the migrants in their tracks, and April 29, when MHA allowed them to travel? If spread of Covid-19 was the reason to keep them in shelters, the numbers have only increased and by that logic the inter-state travels should not be allowed now. If the government can allow these travels for the migrant workers with certain conditions now, it could very well do this a fortnight ago when they were floating on highways.
It only means that the governments were not bothered them. That the governments only thought about doing this after they conceded to parents of students in Kota.
Now that the Centre has allowed inter-state travel of migrant workers, another contradiction emerges: the government wants industries to resume operations to put the economy on track, especially the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which depend heavily on migrant workers. How will this happen if workers are allowed to leave? Can industries run without labourers?