On March 31, the Centre informed the Supreme Court that there were no migrant labourers on the roads given the measures governments had adopted to house and feed them in various states. This submission was made after petitions were moved asking the Centre to act to avert a humanitarian crisis, as labourers began walking hundreds of miles to get back to their native towns and villages.

On Tuesday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation to announce a Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus, workers were still taking to the highways in large numbers trying to get back home.

There can be no doubt over the fact that migrant labourers crisis is the result of government apathy. Despite close to two months passing since the migrant crisis began with the sudden enforcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 25 to curtail the spread of Covid-19, the Centre has not found it necessary to establish a task force to help migrants reach their homes.

Vande Bharat

In the meantime, the Centre has shown alacrity in helping the more prosperous. Early May, it decided to mount a massive mission titled Vande Bharat to bring back those stranded in other countries due to the global Covid-19 situation.

There have been sporadic protests by the labourers in cities like Mumbai and Surat, but the scale of these protests was nothing compared to the magnitude of the crisis. With fear of law acting against them if they assemble to assert their rights, labourers have silently endured unimaginable hardship. With no money in hand and even food being scarce, many walked miles with nothing more than biscuits and snacks for a solitary meal a day.

But this situation has failed to move the state adequately. While special trains were launched to carry the migrants back to their homes on May 1, the trains were far and few given the sheer number of migrants stuck outside their home states. To make matters worse, as the lockdown reaches its fag end next week, the governments, pressured by an industry that is worried about restarting production and services, are treating labourers like commodities.

On May 5, the Karnataka government chose to cancel the special trains after pressure from builders. A public outcry forced the state government to change this stand a day later. Last week, the Uttar Pradesh government passed an ordinance that effectively suspended 35 of the 38 labour laws in force in the state to boost investment.

National calamity

This has led to great tragedies. In Maharashtra’s Aurangabad, 16 labourers sleeping on the tracks were run over last week. Elsewhere, migrants walking back have been run over by cars or killed when overloaded vehicles tipped over.

Activists and labour unions have heavily criticised these flawed attempts to take the workers back home. The groups said on Tuesday that the government has since April 29 issued four orders on migrant travel. Of these, the first three, they alleged, were “confusing and conflicting”, while the order issued on Monday was “incomplete and vague”, and the travel protocols established by various states have many gaps. The organisations added that a second exodus of migrant labourers to their hometowns has begun.

It is true that the industries will need workers to restart their production and in turn the economy. But this cannot be a reason to violate the most fundamental of rights there is in the Constitution: the right to life and livelihood.

Task force

A more compassionate government would have by now taken up the cause of the migrants on a war footing, setting up a task force equivalent to the Ministry of External Affairs team that is arranging for Indians across the world to come home as part of the Vande Bharat mission. Instead, the Centre has left it to the states and moved on.

Migrant workers have always been invisible to India’s policymakers, which is why the current crisis erupted as it is. By yet again ignoring the concerns of the migrants and treating them as expendable, the Centre is perpetuating this disastrous error.

Just as it sees the Covid-19 crisis as an economic opportunity to reshape Indian industry, why can’t the government take the migrant crisis – and indeed the images of hundreds of people walking home in despair – as a chance to fix its approach towards this vulnerable population? Indeed needs a Vande Bharat mission for internal migrants attempting to get home, one that factors in the likelihood that these citizens may want to return to the states where they work in when they feel safer.

And if the industries and the governments want workers to return to factories and offices, this should be done through incentives and not force. The choice to return should be that of the workers and not the whims of the industry. Anything else would be an inhuman treatment of the workers.