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Now, let’s not mess up drawing migrant labourers back to work


Active member
When Modiji appealed to the people of India to observe a day’s curfew on March 22, clap loudly or clang tins, bells, etc. to show Covid warriors that we were one with them and that we appreciate their efforts to keep us safe, we readily obliged.

When Modiji clamped a lockdown of three weeks two days later and asked us to light lamps after switching off all electric lights, we complied again. We lauded his leadership without realising at that time that Modiji was thinking only of people like me whose safety would be greatly enhanced if we respected the lockdown and its concomitant necessity of maintaining social distancing.

The sad truth that most Indians stay in cramped accommodations in tiny dwellings in villages or slums in big cities was overlooked by Modiji and his close advisers, as well as the better heeled like me. When the migrant labourers began trudging home hundreds of miles on foot and some lucky ones on cycles, the dirt hit the fan!

Modiji awoke to the plight of the poor when the migrants in Surat came out on the road and burnt private and public vehicles. Surat was home territory for Modiji and Amit Shah. At the same time, migrants in Delhi burnt down two shelters constructed to house the homeless. Then 3,000 migrants in Mumbai descended on the road outside Bandra railway station demanding to be sent home.

Karnataka’s Chief Minister tried to defy the law and the Constitution by ordering migrant labour to resume duty at construction sites. He cancelled the trains that were scheduled to transport them to their native states. The latter replied by setting out on foot with their meagre bags and baggage.

The authorities have now realised that it is useless to prevent the migrants from leaving ‘en masse’.

A herd mentality, born of frustration and neglect, has taken over! Promises to house them and feed them have been routinely broken more out of bureaucratic inefficiency than lack of political will. We messed up the entire matter initially because we failed to take them into account when laying down policy, and later by allowing the situation to spill over by not advising builders and other employers to look after the welfare of their employees till a viable solution was found.

The government has just realised that there is no alternative to opening road and rail transport to ferry the migrant to the emotional and psychological embrace of their own immediate families. Trains have moved out of the cities from May 12! Inevitably this will be a precursor to lifting the lockdown altogether. If train travel is permitted, as it is bound to be, there is no way that lockdowns can succeed!

A very major item on any agenda that occupies the government’s attention will surely be the return of the migrants to their work bases. The construction industry cannot exist without them unless robots are invented to replace basic functions performed by man. At present, migrants will not be interested in discussing such issues. It is only after two or three months, when economic factors click in, that the necessity of returning to work will arise.

Migrant labour, at least in my state of Maharashtra, is also employed in small and medium industries. Big towns like Kolhapur, Sangli, Sholapur depend on them. Migrants also work as domestic help. The last named are better paid and also housed and fed. They will return, but the others will need some incentives which the government will have to discuss with employers.

The government of Maharashtra last week replaced two key municipal functionaries. This I mention because a Punjabi IAS officer, Iqbal Singh Chahal, replaced well-known IAS officer Praveen Pardeshi as the Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai city. Iqbal is the son-in-law of a retired Chief Secretary of Punjab, Ajit Singh Chatha. Iqbal was the District Magistrate of Thane, where he was known as an official who got things done.

The task at hand is not easy. The municipality runs three major hospitals in the city. They found it difficult to manage the pandemic with the resources at their disposal. The Municipal Commissioner, as the top functionary, was the fall guy when the guillotine fell.

Fortunately, Iqbal Chahal has been blessed with an extremely competent, though low-key, number two. Ashwini Bhide, who was the IAS officer responsible for constructing the city’s Underground Metro, is known in the city as a very competent, no-nonsense bureaucrat. She has joined Iqbal at the top of the municipal hierarchy. If anyone can tackle the problems of the crumbling medical infrastructure in the municipality, it will be Ashwini. Good luck to both these stalwarts.


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