By Saamiya Laroia - a sixteen year old student from Delhi
In March 2020, the Indian Government announced a series of stringent lockdown measures in order to rein in the spread of COVID 19 virus, with only four hours of notice. As a result, India’s estimated 139 million migrants were plunged into a cataclysmic humanitarian crisis.
Migrant workers have borne and continue to bear the brunt of Government apathy in regard to the relief responses to this pandemic. The initial reaction policies of the Indian Government may have seemed expeditious, but the harsh reality is that these lockdown measures came with limited forethought to the impoverished majority of India’s population. Social distancing tactics may have been impactful in other countries, but India has a population density of 455 people per square kilometer, an estimated 437 million people working informally, a 100 million circular migrant workers and 13.8 million households located in city slums nationwide. None of this was accounted for in the initial COVID countermeasures. Social distancing was objectively impossible for people working in the unorganized sectors or living in congested urban slums. For India’s migrant workers who had indefinite working hours, no social security benefits, a complete lack of access to protective gear and medical facilities, lockdown was a crushing policy. They had no safeguards to their livelihood yet the government ignored any responsibility it had in ensuring migrant workers’ access to essential supplies after cutting them off from travel and work. There was a complete lack of attention to consequences of such measures on the underprivileged; there is an insufficiency of empathetic humanitarian policies being enacted. When the government announced the doubling of food rations for Indians enrolled in the public distribution systems, it failed to be cognizant of the fact that most migrant workers do not have ration cards. When Narendra Modi announced easing of the movement restrictions in April, it led to a convoluted process where several states imposed mandatory requirements for workers to have medical certificates before boarding transport. Most of the processes required access to smartphones and navigation of online forms and websites. The government failed to have any supplementary schemes which made this process easier for migrants who had limited education and access to technology. In addition, train fares were exacted from these destitute workers while the government generously paid for evacuation of over 1000 Indian nationals abroad.
As the crisis continues to progress, the creation of a number of policies will need to be. India’s legal and labour system needs to be completely reconfigured to first make recourse to the existing Central government schemes for relief possible for migrant workers and second, create new legislations that remove the burden of providing documentation, regulate exploitation, aim to register migrants, etc.
With this previously ‘invisible’ class being brought to the forefront of policy concern, it is absolutely necessary that the government employ policies that are in accordance with the needs of migrants. They must also be wary of the larger picture, an underlying phenomenon of the migrant crisis is the increasing pervasiveness of insecure, unprotected work that must be countered with decent work standards and labour protection laws.
Governments should take an empathetic approach to policy-making. For example: if you were to implement an old-age insurance scheme where individuals contribute to funds that are saved for their old age you would have to consider the fact that many migrants don’t have a long-term perspective of their needs in old age and are not aware of concepts like insuring against risks. Another factor one would have to consider is that women migrants are not only paid less but also take more breaks from work due to family duties. Only after taking consideration of these facts would an administrative body be able to realize that extremely regular contributions are not possible and they would be able to tweak deposit times to account for irregular patterns of work.
A thorough analysis of migrant preferences and behaviour is needed if a successful set of social security policies is to be developed for them. Conduction of need-assessment surveys and educational campaigns to inform migrants of relief measures need to go hand-in-hand with creation of policies. The current fragmentation and complete lack of implementation of government schemes regarding migrant workers needs urgent redress and without empathetic policy design, the future of migrant workers will remain dire.
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