It is being called the ‘long march of India’ – millions of migrant workers are fleeing our cities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1967 political slogan “Roti Kapda aur Makaan” still resonates with approximately 139 million internal migrants in our country who form the unappreciated (but not anymore, as we are forced to clean up our homes) layer of our service industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen one of the most stringent lockdowns in the history of our country. And it was necessary too, to curb the spread of the virus. But the entire concept of lockdown and our endeavour against COVID-19 is based on the notion that we have a house, a secure place. But migrant workers, unable to pay rents for their homes or afford food for their families, have had to make the hard choice between their physical death and economic situation in an unforgiving urban set up.
The central and state governments were clearly asleep at the wheel to not have realised the magnitude of the problem, which would defeat the purpose of quarantine. The mass exodus will also create a bigger health problem as migrants return to villages that have ill-equipped healthcare systems. A few days ago, Home Ministry issued an advisory to states to prevent the exodus by ensuring essential supplies.
Food and lodging for migrants needs to be prioritised while keeping in mind the principle of social distancing. But that is easier said than done in a city like Bengaluru. Let’s look at some numbers.
According to the 2011 Census, 50% of Bengaluru’s population is classified as migrant workers. Not all of them are below the poverty line.
BPL families are the most vulnerable in the current situation. There are no exact figures on this population either, but our blue-collar workers – domestic workers, housekeeping and hotel staff, construction workers, security guards etc – are largely migrants. So the city definitely has a substantial number of low-income migrants.
The migrant population – as opposed to the local urban poor – is especially vulnerable as the majority do not have have access to the PDS (Public Distribution System). The ‘One Country, One Card’ isn’t executed yet. This effectively leaves them out of the safety net of PDS.
Unlike in Delhi, where a mass exodus shows where the migrants are, Bengaluru has not seen an exodus just yet (the situation is a little different in other districts like Mysuru and Belgaum). Anecdotal evidence and common sense would tell us that in Bengaluru, these groups live scattered in temporary shelters near high-rises. They have largely stayed put as this article was being written.
State government has now launched a helpline 155 214, and reopened Indira Canteens to cater to them. And BBMP has set up mobile delivery systems to distribute food. RWAs and private groups have been working around the clock to fill the system deficit. But ad hoc solutions will only make the situation worse.
Let’s first list the challenges:
- There is no data on where migrants live. This data has to be crowd-sourced, which means a lot of migrants would remain unidentified. The scattered demographic – especially construction workers who live on-site and have largely been locked in by contractors for isolation – won’t be able to access food.
- The problem with announcing a particular spot as a food distribution point is that people will converge, which will defeat the purpose of quarantine and social distancing.
- There is no one point of contact at the administration who can coordinate between civic groups and government agencies to ensure that food reaches migrants.
We are stuck in a catch-22 situation – getting food to people is a challenge because we really have no idea where they are, whereas getting them to one location for distribution will defeat social distancing.
Here are some possible solutions:
- There is no question that the solution to this problem needs to be hyperlocal. Ward Committees must be engaged to identify migrants, to ensure they have essentials including uncooked rations.
- A centralised kitchen to supply cooked food. The government machinery must deliver cooked food to their homes so there is no congregation of people.
- Wherever possible, create community shelters for the homeless to ensure they have a place to stay. This would also make food delivery easier.
- A nodal officer must be appointed to coordinate between civic groups, NGOs and the government machinery to ensure that efforts are not duplicated.
- Government should initiate community outreach programmes to understand where the deficit is.
As we face one of the most challenging health crises the world has seen in recent times, containing the virus within urban areas is crucial. Pushing it to rural areas would further burden our fragile public healthcare system. Reverse migration needs to be arrested, and the best way to do that would be to ensure migrants are taken care of in the city.