Going by the government’s response to questions in Parliament, there was no migrant crisis triggered by a nationwide lockdown declared at four hours’ notice by the prime minister on March 23.
In reply to a question on why the lockdown to contain the coronavirus had been declared at such short notice, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai replied it was to “stop the untraceable movement of people from one place to another within the country”. Rai added that the government ensured all basic amenities – food, water, medical care – would be provided. Misinformation that such amenities would run out might have sent some migrant workers scattering home in a panic, he surmised.
Yet, a large number of migrant journeys have slipped through the cracks of government records. According to Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar’s replies on September 14, about 10 million migrants went home during the lockdown and the Centre could not account for about four million. Gangwar could only say that 63.07 lakh people had been transported home on Shramik trains where food and water were provided free of cost. On the number of non-Covid deaths during lockdown, on the compensation promised for the families of lockdown victims, on jobs lost during lockdown, the government had no data.
The replies either misrepresent the realities of the lockdown or leave vital gaps in information.
To begin with, fears that basic amenities would grow scarce were not unfounded. In the early days of the lockdown, daily wage labourers spoke of living on salt and water, of being forced to choose between starving in the cities where they worked or making desperate journeys home. Numerous studies speak of widespread hunger in the cities and families unable to pay rent.
It was in May, a month and a half after lockdown was announced, that the government announced the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Package to provide food support for migrant workers, especially those not covered by the existing food security schemes. In September, government data revealed only 33% of the foodgrain and 56% of the gram allocated for migrants had actually reached them.
Second, while the Centre concedes that over 10 million migrants went home, the actual figure may be much higher. Data provided by government does not seem to have figures from states like Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Himachal Pradesh, all net senders of migrants. The Shramik trains were organised by the government over a month into the lockdown, by when thousands had already walked hundreds of kilometres to get home. Even then, tickets to these trains were stuck in bureaucratic logjams. According to reports, many migrants paid for their fares through May and the rides only became free towards June. Despite government claims, passengers on these trains spoke of long delays and little food or water. About 80 passengers died, although the Centre argued the deaths were caused by other illnesses.
As for the data that the Centre claims not to have, it has been meticulously compiled by researchers, think tanks, bodies such as the International Labour Organisation and the Asian Development Bank. According to conservative estimates, there were 971 non-Covid deaths during lockdown, caused by hunger, exhaustion, lack of medical care and accidents, among other factors. Numerous surveys yield staggering unemployment figures, especially in the informal sector, and loss in income.
After facing a backlash over his replies, Gangwar tried to explain that since labour was in the concurrent list, it was up to the states to maintain data on migrant workers. This is of a piece with the Centre’s style of functioning through the pandemic: issue confusing orders, impose unworkable plans last minute and leave it to the states to deal with the messy details.
Besides, by Gangwar’s own admission, the Union labour ministry had taken “initiatives to collect the data of migrant workers” going home during lockdown. But when it comes to inconvenient data about the impact of the lockdown, the Centre seems to have adopted an attitude of nothing to see here, move along. It speaks of a vast indifference to the suffering inflicted by ad hoc decisions. It raises questions about the government’s ability to formulate well-informed policies to meet the crises of our times.