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Survival and Mobility in the Midst of a Pandemic

The working poor disproportionately bear the adverse impacts of the pandemic amidst the economic slowdown.

The proclamation of the national lockdown of 21 days, intended to break the chain of transmission of COVID-19 that had infected multitudes worldwide, however, led to an exodus of thousands of the working poor from Indian cities to villages. At the time of such an unexpected eventuality, what became obvious was that the socio-economic plight of the most vulnerable and poorest sections of the population was overlooked as no prior notice was given before the lockdown pronouncement. Is it not the responsibility of the government that, before any such drastic step is taken, the poorest are not forced to bear the brunt of the immediate impact of the lockdown, especially if it was intended for the greater common good? With the lockdown in place, a majority of the migrant workers in the cities, such as daily wage earners, who are bereft of any societal or government support, were left with the only option of returning to their villages for survival as they were rendered jobless overnight. Already living a hand-to-mouth existence, the announcement only led to heighten the sense of fear and panic, further confounding the agony of the multitudes of daily wage earners, contract and self-employed workers, and their families. This, as all means of transport was abruptly stopped while no alternative arrangements were immediately put in place. This led to overcrowding in railway stations and bus terminals at a time when social distancing was advocated by the government in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19. The capital city of Delhi witnessed heart-rending scenes of thousands of migrant workers walking back home as public transport had come to a halt. At a time when the government was organising flights for those stranded abroad, thousands of migrant workers were left to fend for themselves within the inter-state boundaries. This situation was exacerbated by the lack of coordination between the central and state governments regarding the handling of this unfolding humanitarian crisis. 

Although some public transport was restored by state governments, much damage was already done. The Supreme Court, in order to halt the exodus, also directed the central government to ensure food, water, beds, medication and counselling in shelters for the migrants and their families. At the regional level, governments, especially that of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, spared no time to institute mechanisms such as direct benefit transfer and cash transfer schemes to help the poor tide over the crisis while other states announced partial relief measures. While an economic relief package of ₹1.7 lakh crore was announced by the central government, this amount, which is a little less than 1% of India’s gross domestic product, would not be sufficient. How this package would be implemented effectively to reach the most vulnerable categories of workers also remains a question due to the inherent defects in the system. This is because most migrant workers, are not registered under any welfare boards nor do they possess bank accounts or ration cards. 

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Updated On : 20th May, 2020

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