Forgotten and uncared for, lakhs of migrant labourers walked, cycled, took buses and trains to somehow make it home when the lockdown was announced a year ago. The sight of human pain and misery — triggered less by the pandemic and more by the policymakers’ lack of planning and foresight — had, it seemed, shaken the conscience of the nation and evoked a collective sense of shame. Surely, then, a repeat would have been out of the question. India, in 2021, was expected to be wiser, better equipped, more considerate, more responsible after a terrible year. Sadly, a repeat is what looks like playing out, all over again.
The dynamics may be different this time — packed trains instead of the long walk home, mostly men since many chose to leave families behind in villages — but shutdown anxieties and work restrictions amid the coronavirus surge are leading to panic reverse migration. Railway authorities claim it’s the ‘summer rush’ when workers return home for the harvest season, but the sheer numbers involved, accounts of those boarding trains and reports from the ground point to a different story. The miserable experience of 2020, the reduced wages amid fresh restrictions and the fears of being caught unawares once more are resulting in the exodus of labourers and daily-wagers from not just Punjab, but also Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi.
A severely disrupted financial cycle, both of the worker and the employer, is being put to further test by the latest diktats on timings. Its negative impact on business and industrial activity, in the face of already low consumer confidence and diminishing earnings, can be catastrophic. The stakeholders have again not been taken into confidence, nor involved in making better decisions. Expecting the workforce and the employers to be ideal citizens and adhere to every new direction, while offering blanket immunity to those who can go about organising political or religious events that enjoy official patronage, is sheer hypocrisy. The migrants’ anxieties are real, not made up. Addressing their concerns ought to be accorded top priority.