Soon after visuals emerged of hundreds of migrant workers massing outside a train station in Mumbai demanding that they be allowed to go home amid India’s 40-day coronavirus lockdown, the incident became political.

Aaditya Thackeray, a Maharashtra minister and Shiv Sena leader who is also Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s son, blamed the gathering on the Union government for failing to arrange transport for the migrants. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party, on his part, claimed that the state government was shrugging off responsibility of hosting the migrants, since travel was not an option at the moment.

So which is it? Is the Union government at fault for not helping the migrants return home or is Maharashtra to blame for failing to acknowledge that the health crisis could spread across the country with the migrants?

The simple fact is there are no simple answers.

Below we break it down.

Indians want to go home

Much discussion around the migrants seems to resemble talk of pieces on a chess board: “Why can’t they just stay put where the government tells them to?” “letting them go home is dangerous,” “if meals are given, why do they need money?”, “if they’re not here, where will we get labour?”

But before considering any other aspect of the situation, it is crucial that we remember that these questions relate to human beings, with hopes, desires and families. “I want to see my wife and kids,” one construction worker from Bihar, working in Bengaluru, told the Business Standard. “I want to return home. Work can wait... Right now, I want to be with my family.”

This desire to get home, not just because of money or lack of work, is completely understandable – it is why, for example, the state of Gujarat arranged luxury buses for 1,800 pilgrims from the state stranded in Uttarakhand to return home despite the lockdown in March or why the Indian government gave citizens abroad a few days’ notice to return home before halting all flights. Yet this impulse is rarely acknowledged when it comes to migrant labour.

Going home may not be plausible or may be tricky at this moment, but it is crucial that the people making decisions acknowledge and understand this deeply human desire.

Host states & home states don’t want them

To understand the migrant problem, you could divide Indian states into “home states”, which the migrants are moving out of, and “host states”, the richer states where work is easier to find. Very roughly this can also be seen as a geographical split, with migrants moving from the North and East to the South and West, although the actual picture is much more complicated.

The unfortunate situation, as explained in further detail here, is that neither host states nor home states want to take responsibility for them right now.

The host states are worried about migrant unrest and about the difficulty of having to provide shelter and provisions while also ensuring that they follow social distancing and lockdown rules.

The home states, however, fear a sudden spurt in cases, difficulty in attempting to enforce 14-day quarantines and the potential for the returnees to overwhelm healthcare facilities that are not prepared for large numbers.

Thackeray acknowledged this uncomfortable situation. after Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to the Maharashtra chief minister after the Mumbai incident.

This was predictable – yet not planned for

That a national lockdown, especially one in which there was no clear sign when normal activity would resume, would lead to migrants attempting to get home should have been no surprise to Indian policymakers. During demonetisation, when work and the movement of currency dried up across the country, the same trend was evident.

Yet the Centre did not work with the states to prepare for such an eventuality when it unilaterally announced a three-week lockdown, prompting an immediate crisis as hundreds of thousands of people took to the roads to return home.

At first, states even seemed to be making arrangements for this travel, before the Centre – almost a week into the lockdown – issued guidelines prohibiting such movement and ordering everyone on the roads to be treated as violators of the law. It was only then that states began to set up shelters that would host the migrants.

Similarly, as the first three-week period came to an end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi waited until the very last day to announce that the lockdown was going to be extended. This created the conditions for rumours to spread about trains being arranged for migrants to go home, which in part explains the amassing of people at the station in Mumbai.

Food, shelter, income?

While shelter and provisions alone may not be enough to satisfy citizens who want to return to their families, they can at least go some way towards alleviating the difficult conditions the state has put them in, ostensibly for their own benefit.

Yet, because of the lack of planning and the unprecedented situation, the support on offer to migrants has left much to be desired.

In Hyderabad, for example, workers from Madhya Pradesh were locked up in a wedding hall, with no permission for them to get out. In other places, even intra-state or intra-city migrants were stuck in decrepit conditions, such as the garbage- and excreta-laden shores of the Yamuna in Delhi.

Though the government anounced additional rations and a small amount in cash transfers, research has shown that as many as 100 million Indians would fall through gaps in the safety net because of technical errors. That doesn’t count all of those who don’t have ration cards or don’t qualify for provisions in the states that they are currently in. Even when food is provided, it rarely takes into account the individual needs of the communities.

As a result, hunger has become a serious concern around the country. There are some simple immediate fixes for the Centre to carry out to solve this problem, but if the situation remains as it is currently, India would be looking at a huge population of people starving.

Some states have tried to address this situation. After hundreds of workers took to the streets in Kerala at the end of March and with WhatsApp messages locally spreading a vilification campaign against them, the state has sought to reach out, by offering free food and accomodation. But even then, leaders of the state have been among those calling for the Centre to do more, saying that the situation is not sustainable.

Meanwhile, almost no income support has been announced for those who are going without work. Farmers are cutting back on labour, workers are claiming that employers are defrauding them of wages they are owed, and the cash transfers so far announced by the government will not address the massive losses faced by individuals.

Without adequate shelter, food or income support, is it any wonder that people want to go home?

People line for food in Surat. Credit: PTI

Re-starting would also take longer

There is a utilatarian argument for not allowing migrant labourers to go hom, besides the stress it would put on healthcare systems and the potential for further spread of Covid-19.

Even if industry is allowed to re-start after April 20 in those areas that are unaffected by the Coronavirus, companies are going to face a massive shortage of labour, since many of those who would normally do the work have traveled home or at least some of the way. Preventing workers from traveling home would ensure this labour shortage does not get worse.

But this approach ignores that the migrants are humans, not just resources.

“The lack of acknowledgement in the current crisis of the migrants’ desire to be with their families echoes a narrow construction of the migrant actor through the lens of their economic impoverishment,” writes Sugandha Nagpal, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Jindal University. “However, this approach not only overlooks the agency of the migrant actor, it is also short-sighted in ignoring that simply locking down people in temporary shelters, away from their social support systems is not sustainable”

Indeed, forcing migrants to stay in uncomfortable shelters, with little in the way of food or income support, may have the opposite effect, as Bloomberg reports. It might make them scared of returning to the cities while the threat of Covid-19 and attendant lockdowns is still around, forcing companies and governments to offer incentives to get them to return.

“After Modi ji’s lockdown, we’re scared of returning,” one migrant from West Bengal who went home after losing his job as a driver in Delhi told Bloomberg. “During tough times, only family comes to help.”