Migrants Can’t Be Kept Back Through Force; Three Learnings For An Emotionally Dumb State
The migrant exodus crisis was an entirely avoidable one. It cannot be seen as a pure law and order problem.
Here’s what we need to know about migrants that we are missing so far.
The single biggest failure of the Indian state in its battle against Covid-19 is its poor handling of the migrants issue. Soon after the first phase of lockdown was announced on 24 March, an exodus of migrants began almost immediately from Delhi. Crowds gathered at the Anand Vihar bus terminus, and others started walking home hundreds of miles away.
In the last few days, with the expected end of the first phase, we have seen migrant groups protesting in Surat, Mumbai, Hyderabad and even Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, seeking to leave for home. By congregating in large numbers in various places in big cities, they have effectively neutered the beneficial effects of the safe distancing norms enforced so far.
One can blame mischief-mongers for the panic exodus, but that isn’t the point. In any situation of panic, mischief-mongers will fan the flames.
The real questions are: why did state governments and the Centre not understand this basic reality of India, where two-way movement of migrants is a seasonal phenomenon? Why did they not make migrants partners in the fight against Covid-19, instead of reducing them to unwilling participants in the lockdown? More important, does the Indian state believe that force and coercion are enough to keep migrants immobile during a lockdown?
India cannot win the war against Covid-19 by presuming that migrants are foolish kids who don’t know what is good for them.
So what do we need to know about migrants that we are missing so far? The answer is three-fold: understanding migrant psychology, addressing economic imperatives, and creating a supportive state apparatus. Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) is missing in our current approach.
First, psychology. It is natural for human beings to want to head home whenever they feel fear or panic in their surroundings. The lockdown has forced millions of migrants to stay in narrow, claustrophobic quarters, often in slums. This has accentuated fears and longing for a return to more familiar surroundings back home, even if home is not exactly bountiful in terms of jobs or incomes. The push effect of isolation is now greater than the pull effect of a return to jobs when the lockdown ends.
The only way to reassure migrants to stay where they are is to promise them a safe return under government supervision in small batches where there is no overcrowding in buses and special trains. This, coupled with an assurance that the state will take care of them as long as they stay put, may prompt most migrants to stay.
To address fears, state administrations must address the psychological fears of being stranded far from home. Not only state ministers, but MPs, MLAs, and, if necessary, ministers from the migrants’ own home states (mostly UP and Bihar) must be drafted in to give this reassurance. In any event, there must be guarantees of a return in an organised manner, if that is what they want.
Second, there is the real economic fear. Many, if not most, migrants do not have basic access to subsidised foodgrain from ration shops. This means the government’s economic package may not get to them, unless special arrangements are made for them to be given the grain and the financial wherewithal to make their own food at home.
Arvind Kejriwal addressed this issue quickly after the Delhi migrations started by setting up food kitchens and delivering grain even to those without ration cards. All state governments need to do the same, even if it means some families will collect double the rations due, one back home and one where the migrants stay. Economic incentivisation may work where directives from above don’t.
Third, the infantilising of migrants must stop. All human beings are capable of understanding the need for precautions during a pandemic. There is no need to believe that if given the opportunity to maintain safe distance from the infected and the means to prevent infections, they will not do so. This means the state must provide temporary accommodation — maybe on the outskirts, or in idle train coaches — to allow migrants to live without coming in close contact with one another.
They can be given free medicines and hand sanitisers to maintain clean habits. Migrants can also be housed in unoccupied properties in cities, which currently have large inventories of unsold flats. The only coercion needed is when it is time for the migrants to vacate these properties.
The migrant exodus crisis was an entirely avoidable one. It cannot be seen as a pure law and order problem where the police have to use lathis and other coercive means to keep the alleged non-cooperation of migrants in check. Migrants know what they need to do if given the support and empathy of the state administration. This is the missing ingredient in India’s war against Covid-19.
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