Home >Opinion >Columns >The exodus of the migrant workers: fear is the key

Last week, the Union government and the Reserve Bank of India or RBI, in sync as it were, pronounced back-to-back measures to head off the challenge posed by the rapid spread of Covid-19. While the pronouncements of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman were essentially a social safety net to mitigate the hardships of those at the bottom of the pyramid—who have been blindsided by a spike in the disease that has taken the snuffing out of the informal economy. RBI, on the other hand, sought to alleviate the impact of the lockdown—an effort FFto flatten the spread of Covid-19—on economic growth and ensuring financial stability.

The moves of the duo were, however, dwarfed by the humanitarian crisis that has begun unfolding in the metros, Delhi in particular, as scores of migrant workers displaced from their jobs after the 21-day lockdown was initiated chose to head back home. Their otherwise daily trade-off between lives and livelihood suffered a rude reset following the lockdown.

Seized with panic, the migrants, ignoring norms of social-distancing—the only proven weapon against Covid-19—thousands of people thronged the eastern outskirts of Delhi seeking their way home in the adjoining states; not to avail of leave, as is being argued in some quarters, but to escape contact with the infected. Overnight the unfolding tragedy brought home the tragic sub-text of Covid-19 disease in India: it is (at least in origin) a rich man’s disease and a poor man’s burden. After all the disease originated in the second-largest economy in the world in the industrial cluster of Wuhan, China and travelled first to places like Italy—deeply connected commercially with each other.

We have to accept a basic truth. It is not the poor who get to travel abroad or stay in hotels; the high-profile example is a Covid-19 infected member of the aspiring Bollywood fraternity who fraternized with the elite both in India and abroad. She in many ways represents the privileged class who have blatantly disregarded the risks they pose to others in violating social distance norms. On the other hand, you would rarely see such disdain on the part of those at the bottom of the social pyramid; their dire economic circumstance does not lend itself to any false sense of security.

Undoubtedly, the administration, both the Centre and the state, have failed these migrants in Delhi. To be sure though, such a surge in the gathering of crowds, unless tackled early, will no doubt overwhelm even the best prepared administrations.

Worryingly, a similar exodus should logically be playing out in the metros in south India—the new destination for migrants since the turn of the Millennium. Census data reveals that in 2011, Bengaluru and Chennai migrants accounted for one in two residents; in 2001 their proportion was a third of the population for Bengaluru and a fourth for Chennai. More stunning is Hyderabad where the data shows that migrants in 2011 account for three out of four residents in the city. Predictably on Sunday, reports of a crowd of migrants assembling in Kottayam have begun to emerge.

It is true that the current circumstance is unprecedented—given that this pandemic is like a once-in-a-century crisis—and hence institutional memory is non-existent. Yet it is also a fact that the administration of most state governments overwhelmed as they are by sloth following years of neglect, underestimated the extent of the challenge. Exactly why the migrants would rather risk their lives in reaching home than trust the state support mechanism.

It is time then for us to go back to the Father of the Nation for inspiration and guidance. Especially this maxim: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him/her. Will they gain anything by it? Will it restore control over their own life and destiny?"

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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