To contain the spread of COVID-19, the government of India invoked the 2005 National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) and, on March 24th, 2020, declared a national lockdown in the larger interest of the nation’s public health and safety. While quarantine is one of the oldest disease control methods in existence and Mr. Kumar agrees, he was concerned about the significant challenges the lockdown would create for members of marginalized communities in India.
Work and employment came to a standstill, stirring economic distress among blue-collar workers. Informal and migrant labourers have been affected most severely, since they had neither sufficient time to prepare, nor proper economic relief beforehand. Tens of thousands of migrant workers have come onto the road, in an attempt to make it back home. “I live in Delhi and have witnessed unprecedented numbers of people- children and elderly alike- walking miles to reach home”, says Mr. Kumar. Many remain stranded far from their homes, without knowing where they are. The sense of desperation, fear and insecurity is palpable- these workers do not have the ability to survive the lockdown on their own.
What Stranded Migrants Need
In collaboration with Jharkhand’s Ministry of Labour and Employment, PHIA Foundation set up a helpline to promulgate safety, wellbeing and hygiene measures among stranded migrants, and assist them with their challenges. From over 20,000 calls, the helpline reached 713,000 stranded workers. The main types of support that they seek include:
- Money: Many say that they have run out of savings and are seeking financial assistance. The helpline is, therefore, looking to connect donors and investors to the migrants’ cause.
- Essential Supplies: The availability of food and ration has also been a problem; in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, people who wander too far for food are getting sent back by the police because of the lockdown. So the helpline is also connecting with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) that can assist with the distribution of essential supplies.
- Health: Although no serious issues relating to COVID-19 have been reported by migrant workers yet, regular ailments such as fever and cough are cropping up. Hence, the helpline is starting to provide medical advisory and information on nearest hospitals.
- Information: Migrants often call to ask how soon the lockdown will end and transport facilities will restart. Given poor government-provided accommodation facilities, most migrants are staying in small, cramped rooms where it is impossible to socially distance. In these cases, helpline workers are explaining to them the rule of law and promoting the use of masks.
Interestingly, the majority of stranded migrants simply call to say they want to return to their homes. People wanting to go back home is not about their defiance of the lockdown or economic hardship. “It is the basic human tendency,” says Mr. Kumar, “to go back to your family, well-wishers and support systems” during times of crisis.
“I strongly believe that unconditional cash transfers are the best way for one to help these workers right now”, asserts Mr. Kumar. “We can even explore providing them with recharge options through mobile apps such as PayTM and GooglePay.” This way, migrants themselves can buy what they need. And since they are likely to buy from small shops which are having to shut down, cash transfers could revive economic activity and activate the markets. Issuing coupons to bigger retail stores (such as Big Bazaar, etc.) is another option, only applicable for the richer members of migrant communities.
Although the government is open to giving unconditional cash transfers, it can only provide them to formally registered people. An internal sampling found that 80% of stranded migrants were not registered. Hence, for unconditional cash transfers to be delivered at the required scale, a lot more non-government players need to get involved.
Another strategy is to quickly bring these migrants into existing government employment schemes. To include these workers in existing schemes, a new waiver or mechanism could be developed, which ensures advance payment of wages now, in the promise of work at a later stage. CSOs especially can play a much-needed role here, in helping workers identify and apply to schemes they are eligible for.
There is a high possibility that stranded workers will want to go home once the lockdown is over. If these migrants are COVID-19 carriers, they would put their villages at high risk. Hence, mechanisms for proper reverse migration and monitoring village vulnerability need to be developed. Moreover, when stranded migrants finally return to their villages, they may not want to undergo the same painful experience again, and try to find new livelihood opportunities in their own villages. We must therefore be prepared to facilitate reskilling and upgrade existing skills for thousands of workers.
One way to collect data on the vulnerability of villages is to leverage relevant existing programs. The Internet Saathi Program, for instance, is a digital empowerment program for women in rural Indian villages. PHIA Foundation is working with TATA Trusts and Google, among others, to tap into this vast network of 20,000 internet Saathis across four Indian states to (a) share only officially approved messages with villages (b) promote hygiene practices and (c) collect data around village vulnerability. This data is then being directly shared with the government.
The Road Ahead
The plentitude of migrant articles circulating all tell a terrifying story, and with good reason. We have a long way to go in alleviating the economic, physical and psychological distress that the lockdown is inflicting upon migrant workers. But the good news is that the problem can be addressed by quickly building the right systems and nationwide collaboration between the haves and have-nots. “People do have money and resources in their hands,” says Mr. Kumar. “The urgency is all about working out mechanisms to deploy it now”. This is what nation building is all about. This is how we help those who have a long walk home.
By Meghana Dwaraka
About the Contributor: Meghana is the Monitoring lead from Catalyst Management Services.