I am not sure whether my letters have been put up to you for your perusal, as I do not find any tangible response from the Centre by way of a satisfactory answer to the migrant workers’ woes, except a summary announcement made by the Finance Minister that the Centre would give them 5 kg of grains and 1 kg of pulses free for two months and the Centre’s intention to introduce “One Nation One Ration Card”. These measures do not address the immediate problem on hand.
As I had mentioned in my letter, the immediate requirement of the migrant workers is that they should be provided whatever mode of transport that is available in the country so that they may reach their home places in the shortest possible time. If NRIs can be provided special aircraft and Navy’s vessels, I do not see any reason that the migrant workers should be treated differentially.
Let me repeat that the migrant worker crisis has arisen because of the ill-planned decisions taken from time to time. The abrupt lockdown announcement threw them out of their employment. The employers left them in the lurch and many of them have not paid their back wages, leave alone provident fund contributions, gratuity etc. and even the cess payable under the Building and Other Constructions Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act.
When the workers were proceeding to move on towards their home places immediately after the lockdown was announced, for reasons best known to the Home Ministry, they were prevented from doing so, exposing them to all kinds of indignities and exposure to Coronavirus. The States who were struggling for resources due from the Centre could not provide them with adequate facilities in many places.
During the 2-month lockdown period, the workers could have been allowed to proceed in a calibrated manner but they were not allowed to do that. Once again, when the lockdown relaxations were announced equally abruptly, the Railways found it difficult to handle such a huge volume of traffic. There was overcrowding of the railway stations. Some Chief Ministers, under pressure from the contractors, many of whom had treated the workers earlier as bonded labour, went to the extent of cancelling the special trains, perhaps to perpetuate the bondage of the workers. Even now, the Shramik trains are moving on but, from what one finds from the TV reports, their train travel has not been without serious problems. As soon as they reach their destinations, they will be quarantined and it will take several days for them to rejoin their families.
There are crores of migrant workers who are still walking, going in trucks paying heavy charges and depending on local charity. Some migrant fishermen had even taken to the hazardous sea route along the east coast, risking their lives and spending their meagre incomes.
I have attached here a picture that was taken today at Visakhapatnam of a young migrant couple coming from the south and cycling all the way to Kolkatta, facing the severe summer conditions. The local NGOs did what the government (both the Centre and the State) ought to have done, that is, give them food, water and solace. The temperatures in many parts of the country have already started soaring in excess of 45 degrees C and I am not sure whether many of these workers will be able to withstand the severe weather conditions. No one has the right to force the migrant workers, especially the pregnant women and the children to walk in the summer heat, without proper nourishment and care. Should the Centre remain a passive spectator to what is going on?
As I had already pointed out, the Centre should know that “inter-State migration” and inter-State quarantine” are listed at Item 81 of the Union List of the Constitution. The Centre should, therefore, own full responsibility for the safe and the speedy return of each and every migrant worker in the country to his/ her home place. After all, it is these workers who have been contributing significantly to the growth of the economy and the well being of the nation.
As of now, both the Centre and the States have lost precious time in dealing with the immediate problems of the migrant workers. As the summer heat is increasing, any further inaction will prove disastrous. The only alternative that is available at this belated stage is for the Centre to seek the services of the Defence Forces who have the resources available and who have demonstrated time and again, during natural calamities, that they can evacuate such a large number of workers with a great deal of efficiency and care. They can provide excellent medical help that most workers are in need of, as the para-military services did admirably in the case of the Wuhan returnees. They can provide good quarantine facilities and, more important than everything else, they can give a sense of security to the otherwise abandoned workers. In extra-ordinary situations like this, such an extra-ordinary move is justified.
The movement of the migrant workers should have the highest priority in the transport sector and they should be given the Green Channel facility, without inter-State border stoppages that have so far acutely compounded the crisis. Whatever supplementary help that the Defence Forces may need should be provided unhesitatingly by the Centre and the States, the Central and the State PSUs.
As soon as the workers get back to their homes after the quarantine, they will have to be rehabilitated to regain their sustainable livelihoods. Both the Centre and the States should set aside their constant bickering and collectively put in place a comprehensive rehabilitation scheme for this.
Strangely, in some States, the laws in place for protecting the rights of the migrant workers have been suspended! This is unacceptable. The Centre should intervene and stop such a move.
Never before in the history of independent India, such a huge humanitarian crisis has been witnessed. As citizens of this country, we should hang our heads in shame.
Kindly act fast, act before the migrant workers fall prey to the heat of the summer.
I am sure that you will act urgently, with a sense of compassion and sensitivity in this matter.
(text of the letter Dr EAS Sarma, former secretary GoI wrote to Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India)