As of now, social distancing has proved as the most effective strategy to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Adherence to it necessitated the implementation of a complete lockdown and similar measures in many countries, including India.
‘Stay at home’ is the motto devised for ensuring social distancing amid the pandemic. However, the question is, stay at home as a measure is the same for everyone across social class? The answer is no due to the dismal situation of the poor, especially the thousands of migrant workers who are away from their native places. The abrupt declaration of lockdown and its extensions have created panic among the migrant workers by foreseeing the appalling experiences ahead, hunger, and vulnerability.
What most of the migrant workers anticipated has actually happened with them throughout these days in the form of lack of food, wage, and necessary supports. This expected tragedy precipitated the strong aspiration to go back home. Certainly, most of them felt home as the most secure place than being isolated in a single room in the jhuggi (slum) of the distant city away from one’s family and community.
Most of the migrant workers firmly believe that the situation would have been better if they could have gone home. While the mainstream society is busy in watching the retelecast in the Doordarshan, enjoying youtube and the virtual world, migrant workers in the urban ghettos are struggling with hunger and living under uncertainty. The measures, arguably, devised for them are not actually reaching to them, many are ineligible to avail those, or whatever has reached is minimal to manage the daily needs.
Migrant workers staying with families are ill-affected by the lockdown. I had the opportunity to interact with some of the migrant workers from the National Capital Region. The situation is disheartening. Somehow, they could manage the initial weeks of the lockdown with the tiny saving they had and the supports received from different sources. However, as days rolled, most of them are striving to meet their basic needs.
Amid these unusual circumstances, most of them had to pay their rent of ranging from 2000-4000 rupees for single rooms. Some of the landlords have shown concern by waving off 20 to 30 percent of the rent. All of them are now worried about how to pay the rent for the forthcoming cycle.
As usual, the sufferings of women are at the peak. Instances of domestic violence have increased, and men use it as a means to relieve their frustration. The case of women who are pregnant and breastfeeding is again critical as they are deprived of the essential foods, medical care, and support. The nutritional needs of the children are also unfulfilled.
Children who are already malnourished will be severely affected by the unaffordability of necessary nutrients. Another crucial issue affecting women is access to toilet facilities. Most of the ghettos occupied by the migrant workers have limited and dilapidated sanitation facilities. Though a large number of people used to access such facilities even before, the time slots of access were different for many depending on the livelihood options they are into and the timings. Amid lockdown, the available facilities are not enough due to overcrowding all the time, and women suffer the most.
The confinement to the rooms with limited space, living resourceless, and with no means of entertainment make most of them frustrated. The idea of stay at home and social distancing, though strictly practised by most of them, such efforts have limited output in the long run in the crowded jhuggis. The maintenance of one-meter distance is an impossible task for them. Most of them understand the same and live under the frequent fear of getting infected, as some workers from their locality are still going outside and coming back.
The usage of common toilets also posits significant risks as the recent evidence suggests that the virus can even be spread through faecal-oral transmission. Enough water supply is also not available in most of such localities, which further impacts the practice of washing the hand on regular intervals.
Undoubtedly, the implementation of lockdown in India was the necessity of the time. However, the reality is, it was unplanned and not taken into account the millions of poor, including the migrant workers. The very identity of being migrant labour makes them vulnerable to be treated with indignity.
We are witnessing irony where politicians are still hosting wedding receptions and parties while the poor are mistreated in the streets by cops when searching for the food. The consolidation of all these dismal experiences resulted from the material deprivation, the inaccessibility to state measures, and the apathy of government remain a good reason for the migrant workers to feel unsafe and aspire to go home. The mass gathering and long-walks to home are the results of such frustrations and unequal treatment.
The contribution of the migrant workers in the urban economy is indispensable and can’t be neglected. The current crisis they are encountering is something that could have been addressed appropriately by using available mechanisms and designing sensible plans.
Somehow, there is a huge gap in the inclusive measures strategized in the times of COVID-19 for the vulnerable segments. It is the need of the hour to devise appropriate mechanisms to address the issues of the stranded migrant workers without further delay. The central, state and local self-government must act aptly to ensure the contextual needs of the migrant workers and ease the access to all available measures devised.