This article originally appeared on VICE India.
A video of migrant labourers being hosed down by officials in protection gear near a checkpoint in Bareilly, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, has gone viral on social media. And while the clip—with the officers reportedly hosing down men and women with sanitiser and chlorinated water—has raised concerns over the terrible treatment of informal workforce by the authorities, it has also brought to light yet another crisis that the 21-day India lockdown to fight the novel coronavirus has brought forth. This time, it’s about the lakhs of migrant workers.
Over the last few days, several images of workers—who are out of jobs and homeless, trying to make their way back home from the cities they were employed in—have been emerging. So in a country where this section of informal labourers makes for 93 percent of the total workforce (as recorded by the 2018-2019 Economic Survey of India), the visuals are nothing less than overwhelming.
The New York Times has called it “one of the biggest migrations in India’s modern history”, while others call it the “harshest” and strictest coronavirus lockdown in the world. It’s so bad that even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologised for the “harsh steps” of this measure that have been bad “especially for the poor people”, during his monthly address on his radio show, Mann Ki Baat.
But reports of authorities mishandling and mistreating scared and exhausted migrants have been coming up for the last few days. While the Bareilly incident has invited a lot of anger and prompted the district magistrate to take action against the officials who forced the migrants to take bath in the open, in another incident, a cop in Madhya Pradesh was taken off duty and served a showcause notice for writing “Maine lockdown ka ullanghan kiya hain, mujhse door rehna (I have violated the lockdown restrictions, stay away from me)” on a migrant labourer’s forehead.
In Surat, the lockdown has led to clashes between the migrants and cops after the labourers returning to the city were denied the permission to go back to their homes. The angry workers reportedly pelted stones and damaged police vehicles, while the cops fired tear gas at them alongside firing their guns in the air.
Such is the intensity of the migrant exodus that more than 20 migrants have reportedly died while trying to get home during the lockdown. The number is alarming considering that it’s not too far from the COVID-19 death toll in India, which stands at 29 at the time of writing this piece. Some of them died under the physical strains of walking hundreds of kilometres, while several died in road accidents. But despite this, the workers carry on helplessly, sometimes even taking improper routes, to get back home.
Some states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have set up disaster border relief camps, where lakhs of people will be given shelter and food, along with self-quarantine options. At the same time, after videos and photographs of lakhs of migrants gathering en masse at the Anand Vihar Bus Station in New Delhi to go home went viral, the central government suspended two bureaucrats for “failing” to handle the situation in Delhi properly.
However, some officials have expressed concerns that the very “informal” nature of this workforce would be a hindrance to locating and supporting migrant labourers during the lockdown. Some experts have previously cautioned that a lockdown will not work in a country like India where the society is not “organised”.
In yet another comment about migrants in lockdown, Pronab Sen, the former Chief Statistician of India, told The Indian Express that the government can instead use this opportunity to “register” migrants and casual workers while they’re stranded and are exposed to COVID-19 risks. “Out-migration should have been stopped much earlier,” he said. “The more sensible thing to do now is to tell people who are working in such establishments to get themselves registered with some government authority and say that the government would on registration give them ‘x’ amount of money on a daily or weekly basis, depending on how they want to do it… something like the ration system.”
As social distancing becomes a norm and the “new normal”, it’s imperative for our governments to gauge whether this option is even practical in developing economies. In most cases, it’s just not.
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