CHENNAI: The powers that be may not understand a humanitarian crisis as well as economic disasters. The utter neglect of migrant workers and their hardships across the country, which has resulted in an exodus of labourers from cities to their villages, will cost the country’s economy dearly, says professor S Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Developing Studies in Kerala.
"This is just the beginning," Rajan, who is part of the Kerala government’s expert panel on COVID-19, tells The New Indian Express in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
This is perhaps the first time that Tamil Nadu is witnessing guest workers leaving in such large numbers. What does this say about our planning?
Now, migrant workers are leaving in panic more than anything else, because of trauma. This is just the beginning. For now, they only have the special trains that are being operated and a few other means to get to their hometowns -- this is not a real indication of their movement. The full extent will be known only when regular train services begin to operate. People will still be leaving even in June.
What this shows is that we have failed in our planning, we have failed to look after them. We never imagined migrants in our realm of things. If the State and their respective employers had taken care of them, if workers had been offered financial support, they would have had no reason to leave.
When this happens, what could be the economic impact on Tamil Nadu?
Most cities in Tamil Nadu, including Chennai, will witness an extreme labour scarcity while the rural areas (to which most migrant workers are now heading) will have surplus labour availability. The rural areas will not have enough jobs to accommodate them -- starvation, poverty and even suicides may increase. Urban areas will have a lot of jobs but no labour.
The health crisis we are in is being talked about, but we are set to witness a huge economic crisis due to the (handling of) migrant workers.
Considering the lack of opportunities in the rural areas, wouldn't guest workers want to return to the cities?
Even if they decide to come back, it will not be for the next six months at least. It will be in 2021. Also, whether they come back or not depends on how they were treated by their respective employers during this time of crisis. The Indian government has announced several economic packages but what is being done for the labourers? Only capital and labour together can result in growth, not one without the other.
What should have been done differently?
When the first lockdown was announced, there were just a few hundred (COVID-19) cases. At that point, they could have allowed migrants a week's time to return home by special trains. If this had been done, neither would they have been exposed to the virus as they have been now nor would they have resorted to desperate measures such as walking home.
Now what has happened is that they have become carriers of the virus to their hometowns. Of the people who have been infected, some may even die. In the rural areas that they are most likely headed to they may not have access to medical facilities as they do in cities like Chennai.
What is the role of employers in this crisis?
Employers should learn from their mistakes and think of how to correct them. You see people walking 300-400 kilometres barefoot, they would have all worked for someone or the other before COVID-19. But what have the employers done for them?
For the first time, migrants are returning home empty-handed. Usually, they go for Easter or Pongal or Onam with two or three months of savings.
These are people who have been directly impacted by the virus and the lockdown. They should be given at least Rs 10,000 a month from April until August. This could be funded jointly by the Centre, their State of origin, the State that they work in and, in cases where employers are large companies, them too. This will allow them some time to think about their options without having to worry about money.
This may also ensure that they return to work.
Would the lack of data on internal migration be a challenge when implementing relief measures?
We don't have any data on the number of migrant labourers in Tamil Nadu from other States so far. This is a good time to register them or at least get an estimate. While distributing the relief amount that I suggested, the Government may ask them to register -- get their personal details along with the State in which they work, the State they are from and the employer's name. We will then be able to get the much-needed data too.