India’s long march: A humanitarian crisis has come to the fore with migrant workers fleeing lockdown on foot

A massive movement of migrant labourers back to their native villages and disruption in supply chains of essential commodities highlight the teething troubles that have accompanied the lockdown’s initial days. The abrupt announcement of the lockdown and directions to citizens to stay put saw contradictory impulses surfacing. Police forced even essential services off the roads while many landlords nudged out tenants unable to pay rent. Living in cities amid inflationary times, commodity scarcities and police harassment can unnerve even well heeled citizens. Bereft of savings, social support nets and wary of the outsider tag, it is no surprise that seasonal migrant labour are heading back to their native villages flouting the lockdown.

The visuals of hapless migrant workers walking away from big cities towards inter-state borders undermines the collective resolve evident during the Prime Minister’s call for a one-day “Janata Curfew”. The lockdown was meant to avoid hospitals getting overwhelmed and to buy time for bolstering healthcare capacities. But mismanagement is producing a huge humanitarian fallout with thousands of fatigued people walking home on empty stomachs. In hindsight, a limited-period repatriation could have been allowed before the lockdown was clamped.

The huge internal migration catching central and state governments napping doesn’t present a reassuring sight. No less worrying is the hostile reception some migrants are receiving back home. With no end to such cascading troubles governments, district administrations, municipal bodies, panchayati raj institutions and police cannot rest easy by merely shepherding migrant labourers away from highways. They need to arrange adequate night shelters, community kitchens, public toilets, fever clinics, and make good the promise to deliver free rations.

Economic relief packages by Centre and state need to set aside funds for such wayside facilities lest welfare schemes elude migrant workers. Some chief ministers are coming to the fore by taking up leadership of lockdown measures. The lockdown’s chaos is also a warning to the Centre to take states into confidence before announcements with national implications. India is too big a country and diktats from Delhi need to factor in ground realities in the states too. As the lockdown nears a week, all official functionaries from the Prime Minister and chief ministers down to district magistrates must communicate more frequently and effectively with citizens to avert panic and build confidence and trust in government.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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