COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented surge in the issues surrounding migrant labours. The lockdown, which started in March, 2020 , led to closure of all business and other activities throughout the country. While it helped in containing the spread of Coronavirus by limiting social contact, and enhancement of healthcare infrastructure- testing facilities, hospital beds, incubators, personal protective equipment (PPEs) as well as training of healthcare personnel, the impact on migrant labour was manifold.
Firstly, sudden closure of industrial units, agricultural activities and construction work resulted in job losses in many cases. While the Government had advised employers to take care of their employees and attempt not to retrench them, this could not be sustained for long in view of lack of revenue-generation opportunities for the employers. Secondly, lack of a broader social- and health-security set-up for migrants in view of the very nature of their occupation led to apprehensions in minds of many, which was easy to be replicated through the use of social media. Fear of they themselves catching infection while living in congested urban areas, concern for their family members back home in villages and uncertain and unpredictable environment forced them to take the difficult decision of heading back to their villages, in spite of the foreboding and strenuous journey. Thirdly, apart from the exhausting and difficult journey back home another crisis awaits these labourers as whatever little resources they have back home are not sufficient to help them withstand the hardship of the situation.
In order to provide immediate relief to the workers the Central government has taken several steps. State governments have been permitted to utilise the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for setting up shelters for migrants and providing them food. The Centre has also released Rs 11,000 crore of its contribution in advance to all states on April 3 to augment the funds in their SDRF. Additionally, the disbursal of the Revolving Fund (RF) to self-help groups was on-boarded on the PAiSA Portal in April 2020 on a pilot basis in Gujarat and is now being rolled out across all the states. In order to create a source of income for the migrant labourers returning home, States/UTs have been advised to provide work to the displaced labourers to ease the financial hardship of this transition. The government will also allocate an additional Rs 40,000 crore under MGNREGA to provide work. This measure will help generate nearly 300 crore person days in total and create a large number of durable and livelihood assets, including water conservation assets. Implementation and humanitarian execution of the schemes however remains a challenge as government machinery is grappling with two crisis at the same time -containing Covid 19 and protecting the migrant workers from hunger and disease. The crisis has also brought into sharp focus the need to find a permanent and lasting solution to this problem of migration and create gainful employment opportunities close to home for the rural workforce.