The heart-rending pictures and stories of migrant labourers – estimated at 120 million nationwide – leaving Delhi and other cities and trying to return home squarely establish one thing. That the Centre completely failed to anticipate the impact of such a lockdown on a people who are consumed by the anxiety to survive as they flee to their native places.
Now it is clear that there should have been a slew of measures put in place before announcing the second lockdown – the provision of food, the security of an income, and the guarantee of a place to stay. It is absurd to believe that those who left the cities and walking along the highways – with the elderly and the children – were merely panic-stricken and victims of some alarmist conspiracy. The bald fact is that when the options before someone is certain hunger and the possible infection from a virus, the rational choice is to escape the predicament that is guaranteed. The Centre has now kicked in with a directive to seal the borders in order to stem the migrant exodus. At the same time, it has issued orders to ensure that migrant labourers are not robbed of their food and shelter and that they will continue to receive their wages. Such orders are easy to issue, much harder to implement. It is not clear whether such measures will relieve the anxieties of those who are desperate to return home.
Allowing people to freely return to their native places may seem like the humane thing to do, but it will definitely result in the spread of the coronavirus and undermine the purpose of the lockdown. The only way forward is to ensure that governments at the Centre and the States make those who remain in their places of work as economically secure as possible.
It is imperative that the police is firmly told to treat fleeing migrant workers with decency and respect and stop the violence and the glaring lack of sensitivity. As for those already on the road, the job of the administration is to ensure that they have a safe passage. This means the creation of kitchens, the provisions of night shelters and basic medical facilities. The coronavirus is a health crisis that is threatening to spill over into a major humanitarian crisis. The fate of the migrant workers should not be the first of many episodes in this direction.