Migrants and COVID-19

My personal experience as a migrant

I did my engineering at a prestigious college in Punjab and I got to hear a lot of weird questions from people about the place I belonged like “are you really from Bihar, you don’t look like one?”, “you don’t have colleges there, do you?”. Some even asked me if you have colleges there why didn’t you study there? ignoring the fact that I came through all India rank. This was because Punjab employs a lot of migrant workers in agricultural farms and industries and most of them are from Bihar or UP. So, they had a preconceived notion that most of the population in Bihar is of migrant laborers.

I would not say I faced any issues cause of this but it did make me realize the social stigma that these migrants must have been facing through years in these states. Most of these migrants are called “Bhaiyaas” which has a nice meaning but is normally used in a derogatory way. I have even heard my classmates saying to one another “aaj tu bhaiya banakr aaya hai” which means you are not looking good. And these discriminations were clearly seen in public places or in public transport where people tend to sit away from the so-called “bhaiyaass” as if they are carrying germs all over the body and the situation has aggravated in this pandemic as now they are being sprayed with insecticides at state borders. This was frustrating at times and I used to question my father a lot about it “why do people from our state have move out to the places which do give them food but never gives them a sense of belonging and some spend their entire life like this”. He did answer my question but now I feel the gravity of the issue in this pandemic. Let’s discuss it in the next section.

Why Migration?

In India, around 2/3rd of the population lives in rural areas and contributes to 1/3rd of the GDP while 1/3rd lives in urban areas but contribute to 2/3rd of GDP. There are various reasons which have caused this gap:

  1. Disguised Employment: More workers are employed than actually needed on farms.
  2. Vote Bank Politics: Farmers are given loan waivers during the time of elections but no food processing industries to make them self sustainable. So, they get caught in loans again and the vicious cycle continues.
  3. Lack of manufacturing industries: This leads to a lack of job opportunities in certain states and forces the people to migrate to other states where there is more demand. But the plight is mainly faced by the migrants working in unorganized sectors like construction sites, agriculture, small industries, etc.

Issues faced by migrant laborers

Apart from the social discrimination they face a lot of other issues that have been overlooked by the government forever though they contribute to around 7% of the GDP. India has roughly 54 crores people working in the unorganized sector still a negligible percentage of them hold a voting card of the area they migrate to and hence the most overlooked by the ruling political party. They don’t have access to basic healthcare or shelter. Most of them even don’t own a ration card because they don’t have the required documents as they are not residents of the state. They can’t even avail the facilities provided by the government for their welfare. So, documentation is one of the major issues they face and there is no centralized body that is working towards it.

The interstate migrant workmen act was passed in 1979 to provide them residential accommodation, medical facilities, and protective clothing, payment of wages, equal pay for equal work irrespective of sex, etc, under the chief labor commissioner but it’s merely even enacted anywhere. In case of an emergency, they don’t have proper documents to avail of a loan from a bank and hence they turn to the individual money lenders who charge exorbitant rates from them further leading to another trap of loans.

Since most of these people are uneducated so there is a huge dearth of awareness that prohibits them from enjoying their basic rights also. For every small work, they have to go through a middleman adding an extra burden.

The Pandemic and The Migrants

For the first time in Indian history, the plight of these migraine workers has grabbed the attention of the people when images and videos of thousands of migrant workers started flooding the internet who were on their journey home on foot due to loss of jobs during the lockdown. A lot of them lose their lives on the train tracks and highways while some also due to hunger and thirst. Some videos were really heart-wrenching where a child was trying to wake her dead mother who had died due to hunger and fatigue. Covering thousands of kilometers on foot is not easy under scorching summer in rubber slippers or sometimes even barefoot. After seeing this, many organizations and individuals came forward and helped but at many places, they were even lathi-charged and sanitized with insecticides. The Internet is full of these agonizing stories. So, let’s better talk about the solutions at the community level.

What to do?

Since the pandemic is still going on and these migrants have returned home without any job and most of these migrant laborers belong to rural areas. So, there is a strong need to generate jobs for these people instead of giving them just subsidies and loan waivers for a time being which is a very short-term solution.

Since the outbreak of COVID wearing masks has become the new normal. And, a lot of multinational companies and boutiques are using these opportunities by creating fancy masks at high prices. But, people need simple masks for their daily use. A lot of the rural population is still using either disposable masks again and again which can be risky or very low-quality masks that don’t even fit properly. So, we can train people in rural areas about making simple masks and also supply them at the local level. It will generate employment as well as keep people safe.

Also, a lot of households have started consuming herbal tea or kadha to strengthen their immunity after PM’s speech and the guidelines issued by Ayush mantralaya. So, there is a boost in this sector and the demand for medicinal herbs has increased. Hence, people in villages can be trained to grow local herbs. These herbs can also be used to make sanitizers and can be used locally or sold in the market. This can also generate a lot of jobs.

Due to lockdown, there has been a huge loss faced by the sectors producing perishable food items and even if most of the restaurants have started delivering people are skeptical about eating out. So, in rural areas people can also be trained to convert the perishable food items to long-lasting products so that they can be sold later like making pickles out of raw mangoes, making jams and sauces, making chips out of potatoes.

These solutions can be implemented with the help of local NGOs or self-help groups and can get the help of local government also to avail of basic facilities. But these are just short term employment generation plans. There are a lot of things that need to be done for improving the lives of these migrant laborers in long term and even a sustainable development in their native villages.

In the long run

We need to first fill the 1/3 employment gap in the agricultural sector by generating opportunities like opening up food processing units in villages, dairy, fishing, horticulture etc. improving local tourism by building better roads for connectivity, training people in different languages, promoting local art and culture. But these are far-fetched goals and will take years to be implemented but, till those years, migration will continue. So, we need to focus on improving the life of migrants in the following way:

  1. There should be proper data collection about the migrant laborers with their basic contact information so that subsidies and facilities can reach them easily in case of an emergency. Recently in Punjab, when the state government planned to give subsidies to migrant workers by transferring money to their account, most of this money reached the middlemen’s account instead of workers directly. This is a huge scam and this happened cause lack of proper organization in this sector, lack of data about the workers. So, there is a need to organize this sector by collecting proper data.

2. Basically, there is a huge gap between them and the available government facilities and this is due to the lack of awareness about their rights and government negligence. This can again be filled with some centralized group for this unorganized sector which helps them with day to day issues as well as in cases of an emergency situation like a pandemic.

  1. The interstate migrant workmen act is there but there is a huge need to look into the implementation of the same. This can be done with the help of organizations working at the grassroots level.
  2. The political representation of these migrant workers is another major factor that can ameliorate the situation. Currently, a very negligible percentage of them hold voting rights of the area they live in which makes them least favorable of the ruling party resulting in not getting even basic amenities. But this is again a very far fetched dream and needs a lot of government intervention.

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