The Indian government’s policies towards its vulnerable migrant worker population were already a mess. This week, Karnataka made it worse.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state decided to cancel trains that would allow working-class people from other states to return to their homes five weeks after a national lockdown to combat Covid-19 left them stranded, often without adequate facilities or supplies.

Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa also left no ambiguity about why the trains were canceled, explaining that the decision came after a “meeting with builders”, during which it was explained that “unnecessary travel of the migrant workers has to be controlled”.

Karnataka is saying that these citizens of India do not have the freedom to return to their homes in this moment of crisis, despite the Union Government explicitly allowing them to, because they are needed to work for real-estate developers.

Or to put it simply, builders have convinced Karnataka to treat workers like forced labour, harking back to the days of begar.

This is unconscionable.

Take the chief minister’s own words. “It was explained that unnecessary travel of the migrant workers has to be controlled.”

Unnecessary for whom? The chief minister is making it clear that what is necessary for working-class citizens – many of whom have made it clear that they would rather be at home right now even if work is available – does not count. What matters are the needs of the builders and the economy.

And “has to be controlled”?

The chief minister is not talking about machines or beasts of burden owned by the builders here, but human beings. Imagine him saying the same thing about more affluent people (“unnecessary travel of lawyers or IT workers or Members of Parliament has to be controlled”).

BJP Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya reiterated this point, where the desires of the rich are placed above the needs of the poor, and yet sold to them as a way to “help”. Indeed, Surya claims that being prevented from going home will “restart their dreams”.

What if their dream right now is to be at home with their families, a privilege afforded to most of the people who are making and defending this decision?

It is one thing for the government to impose restrictions on movement amidst a public health emergency. Although that too involves a suspension of a fundamental right, it is one that is easier to justify in the middle of a devastating global pandemic.

Yet, as has been rightly argued, if governments are allowed to use such powers without oversight or criticism, they will inevitably wield them without proper justification, such as the need to “kickstart economic activities full throttle”.

Because these migrants are not voters in the state, the simplest check on such executive excess does not apply. To make things worse, the home states of many of these workers, fearing a healthcare crisis if they return, are unlikely to put pressure on Karnataka to reverse course.

No matter how much Karnataka insists that the labour-class citizens are being well cared for, reporting has made it clear that a vast majority have not been paid wages and forced to live in woeful conditions, with no certainty about when they will be paid and be able to send money home.

Karnataka may point to technicalities about the definition of stranded workers versus those “normally residing” in the state (a callous, meaningless and possibly legally untenable distinction), but the talk of restarting the economy and the canceling of trains right after meeting with builders makes it clear what is actually happening.

As if to underline this point, soon after the trains were cancelled, tensions reached a fever pitch in several parts of Karnataka, while many decided to begin walking home on journeys that will take many days.

There will undoubtedly be an economic hit because of the vast numbers of migrant workers who return home right now, making it hard for many industries to restart. But that is no reason to return India to the days of forced or slave labour.

This exodus is in part an indictment of India’s entire system, from a Union government that doesn’t think about migrant workers when imposing a harsh national lockdown to horrible labour conditions and a social welfare net with giant gaps.

But even if these citizens had been well-paid and provided with adequate accomodation and food, they might still want to go home – an idea that Indian politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders and Supreme Court judges do not seem to understand, even if they have turned a blind eye to their own colleagues bringing back children or relatives from abroad.

The Centre – or the courts – have to step in. Anyone who wishes to go home should be able to, with adequate checks for health and physical distancing. Instead of using restrictive means to prevent them leaving, the Centre and states should instead be working on a blueprint to incentivise the return of migrant workers to industry, including better labour conditions and social security.

If nothing else, the current migrant crisis should force governments into actually designing policies for the vulnerable people who have been invisible to policymakers for too long.