Two migrant workers returning to their home states wait at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh state border in Ghazipur on May 16. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
India's federal government has directed all states to cooperate to ease the passage of stranded migrant workers who want to return to their places of origin.
Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla in his May 19 circular asked states to coordinate with railway operators and transport departments to facilitate the return journeys of migrants as well as provide clarity on train and bus departures.
“Even on April 29 the government issued a similar circular to states and union territories allowing migrant workers to move following guidelines such as social distancing and wearing face masks, but that was not executed well and poor migrants are still suffering on the road,” Father Jaison Vadassery, secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ of India (CCBI) commission for migrants, told UCA News.
“Problems still exist due to confusion among interstate officials, political interference and miscommunication among the authorities which has led migrants to walk on roads. Many are even walking on railway tracks to reach their native places.
“Hopefully this time the government coordinates with each state to help migrant workers reach home safely, or else what is the use of announcing huge amounts of money for the welfare of migrant workers?"
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 ordered a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19, triggering a mass exodus of migrant workers who now face uncertainty.
In his letter to state officials, Bhalla said necessary measures must be taken by state governments to mitigate the distress of migrant workers.
The provision of more special trains between states, an increase in the number of buses and allowing buses carrying migrants across interstate borders are among the measures suggested by the federal office of the Home Ministry.
The letter also asked states to provide sanitation, food and health measures at resting places and reduce long quarantines.
Bhalla said states should make sure that no migrant worker has to resort to walking on highways or railway tracks and special attention must be paid to women, children and the elderly.
The letter emphasized that district authorities should guide workers moving on foot to designated resting places, nearby bus terminals or railway stations by arranging transport.
Less developed states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are the main source states of migrants, who are mostly employed in construction, factories, domestic work, textiles, brick kilns, transport and agriculture.
They are often denied basic entitlements including access to subsidized food, housing, drinking water, public health facilities, education and banking services. They usually work in poor conditions without social security and legal protection.
About nine million people migrate from one state to another each year, according to the Economic Survey of India 2016-17. The figure is nearly double the rate of interstate migration recorded by the 2011 national census.
The exodus of migrant workers from several states during the lockdown has become a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds walking on highways and railway tracks despite government pleas to remain where they are.
On May 8 in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, at least 16 people were mowed down by a train, while at least 100 people were killed in road accidents in various parts of India.
According to a government report, railway operators have provided around 1,500 "Shramik Special" trains since May 1, ferrying over 1.7 million migrant workers to various destinations.