Friday, January 28News That Matters

Preventing homeward flight

With the third wave of the Covid pandemic upon us, the country’s migrant workforce, which had been abandoned during the first lockdown in 2020, has started trickling homeward. Reports from Delhi-NCR and port hubs such as Mumbai and Kolkata show that labourers — belonging mainly to UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal — are getting infected and many are returning to their native towns and villages. They are haunted by the memory of the first lockdown, imposed without a single day’s warning, and fear that another lockdown could financially and emotionally devastate them — yet again. Garment exporters in Delhi-NCR and leather goods exporters in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi are hit by a labour shortage. There are reports that around 3,000 garment export units in Noida face a labour crunch.

On January 1, PM Modi said India would not allow the pandemic to ‘dampen’ development in 2022, and that the country would fight it with ‘full caution and vigilance’ and also take care of the national interest. Inherent in the PM’s address was the suggestion that India would not enforce another lockdown. However, workers seem unconvinced — with several states imposing partial restrictions and night curfews, they are worried about being left high and dry if the situation worsens. The State and its institutions have lost the confidence of the workers, who are unable to decipher fact from rumour regarding an impending lockdown.

According to the National Sample Survey of 2007-08, around 28.3% of India’s workforce were migrants. The 2011 Census showed that around 37% of population — 45.36 crore people — comprised migrants. The most vulnerable are the unskilled or semi-skilled workers who were suddenly out of work, trapped in a city with no job or money in 2020. Such a large number of people having to migrate for work shows there is a lack of economic opportunities in villages. A multi-pronged, long-term policy is needed to meet these challenges. In the short term, migrant workers need to be given the confidence that even in the case of the pandemic worsening, they would be looked after by their employers and governments.

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