Mumbai: The Government of India must invoke central forces to facilitate the safe and dignified movement of migrants attempting to reach home, a petition to the Prime Minister, signed by more than 4,000 people including some eminent persons, has said. “The safe transportation requirements of this magnitude are only possible if the forces and facilities at the disposal of the Government of India are immediately deployed,” a press note released with the petition says.

As many as 3,500 Shramik Special trains had transported more than 4.8 million migrant workers across India by May 27, 2020, according to India’s Railway Ministry. However, the current response strategy of transporting migrants is far from adequate, as Mumbai alone had 4.64 million inter-state migrants as per Census 2011, an annexure to the press note points out.

With millions of internal migrants left in physical, financial and psychological distress by India’s nationwide lockdown, the government had issued an order allowing the movement of migrant workers, tourists and others stranded at different locations by special ‘Shramik’ trains from May 1, 2020. However, the current strategy is poorly managed and coordinated, says the press note with the petition, put together by Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit working with migrant communities, and Working Peoples’ Charter, a network of informal workers’ organisations.

Lack of coordination, resources

Many Shramik trains have journeyed for days, only to reach places other than their scheduled destinations, as per news reports cited by Aajeevika Bureau and the Working Peoples’ Charter. As many as 40 Shramik Specials that departed from Mumbai ended up at wrong destinations--one such train, scheduled for Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, reached Rourkela in Odisha instead after two days. In many instances, migrant workers were not provided food on board or informed of the change in the journey, according to reports.

Following claims that Shramik trains had lost their routes, Vinod Kumar Yadav, chairperson of the Railway Board, said in a press conference that due to congestion on certain routes, some trains had been diverted to less-congested routes. Nearly 80% of trains have Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as their destination, he added.

In Bihar alone, more than 15 lakh people had already returned to the state, as of May 27. Over 100,000 more were set to arrive on May 28. However, the government of Bihar has repeatedly said it lacks the resources to bring migrants back to the state.

‘Invoke central forces’

The facilities and resources of the central forces can provide a crucial buffer to the states and support both the central and state government machineries, the press note says. “Not all states have the same resources to manage the ongoing and projected scale of migrant returnees,” it says, “The proven logistical acumen of our central forces and the presence of its facilities and infrastructure across the country can offer the much-needed emergency transit support and medical help to migrants else they will continue to suffer acute hardship.”

With the National Disaster Management Act invoked on March 24, 2020, to implement emergency measures, the National Disaster Relief Force and other Central Forces should be included in the management of the migrant crisis, it says, pointing out that in addition to providing medical assistance and quarantine facilities, the resources of India’s central forces have already been used for transport during the pandemic--to bring back migrants and Indian citizens stranded abroad.

Income transfers

The press note also highlights a need for the central government to expand the scope of its intervention beyond the provision of transportation. “It is vital that the overall well-being of migrant workers is safeguarded as they attempt to reach home without jobs and savings,” it says, recommending emergency income transfers for a certain period and provision for employment and rehabilitation urgently.

A brief timeline of government action

March 24, 2020: The Prime Minister announces a 21-day nationwide lockdown with four hours’ notice. The central government suspends all transport services including air, road and railways.

March 29, 2020: The Home Ministry issues orders restricting migrant movement and asking the states to enforce strict lockdown measures.

April 29, 2020: Ministry of Home Affairs allows inter-state movement of migrant workers by buses, with coordination among states. No mention of costs.

May 1, 2020: Government announces further extension of a countrywide lockdown with effect from May 4, 2020, for a period of two weeks.

Government issues order to start special trains for migrant workers and stranded persons.

May 3, 2020: Central government issues orders to all states and union territories to facilitate movement of all distressed stranded persons.

Similar measures have been recommended by relief groups as well. An early report by the Stranded Workers Action Network had suggested an emergency cash relief of Rs 7,000 per month, for a period of two months, to each migrant worker. The government should also ensure “immediate clearance of all pending liabilities of wages and materials” under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the report had said.

(Jacob is an intern with IndiaSpend and Jameela Ahmed is a contributor.)