Home Ministry order on migrants puts onus on States, UTs

Published : March 29, 2020 23:34 IST

Migrants near the U.P. border, having walked all the way from Delhi en route to their villages amid the nationwide lockdown, on March 29. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

As India entered the fifth day of the national lockdown on March 29, the total number of COVID-19 cases rose to 979, an increase of 106 from the previous day. The death toll over the last 24 hours rose from 19 to 25 persons. A total of 34,931 tests had been carried out in the country in 113 laboratories under the Indian Council of Medical Research network. The government had also given approval to 47 private laboratories.

Meanwhile, the Central government issued a fresh set of guidelines to State governments and Union territories in the wake of the widely televised mass movement of migrants from cities like Delhi. The guidelines contained a slew of instructions for arrangements for shelter and food for the migrant population.

The Ministry of Home Affairs order was to be enforced through the district administration and the police. These authorities were also required to screen and quarantine the migrant workers in their home towns for a minimum period of 14 days. Directions were also issued to employers to make wage payments on due dates to all employees for the entire period of closure of their respective industries. Landlords were also instructed not to charge rent from their tenants for a period of one month. The District Magistrate/Deputy Commissioner, Senior Superintendent of Police, Superintendent of Police as well as Deputy Commissioner of Police would be “personally liable for the implementation of the above directions and lock down measures”, the order stated.

Why thousands of people converged at the Uttar Pradesh border on March 27-28 in the first place was because, one, they had no jobs or incomes to sustain themselves and their families and, two, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had assured them that 1,000 buses would be waiting for them at the border, buses that never came. The stranded migrants were herded and beaten by the police at the border and when they finally alighted the buses they found that the ride was not free as promised and they had to pay. The Central government has refused to take any responsibility for the discomfort caused by the overnight lockdown announcement that threw the unorganised sector into complete disarray.

The MHA notification issued on March 29 under Section 10 (2)(1) of the Disaster Management Act says the large movement of migrants in parts of the country to their home towns is a “violation of lockdown measures on maintaining social distance”.

At a jointly convened press conference by officials of the Union Health and Home Ministries, in response to a query whether the government had at all anticipated the migrant crisis, the Joint Secretary (Health), Lav Agarwal, said, “kindly appreciate that we are facing an unprecedented situation”, and sought the support of everyone in managing the situation. He reiterated what was being stated all along, that “people must stay where-ever they are”.

Trade union representatives that Frontline spoke to said that appealing to employers to pay the wages of workers was easier said than done. The labour law enforcement machinery, they said, had been weakened over the decades and compliance was next to nonexistent.

There were around 16 lakh Below Poverty Line cardholders in Delhi alone, all belonging to the working class, though that number could be much more. The lockdown had pushed lakhs of people into an economically precarious situation, for which the Central government had not planned. In cities like Delhi the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, gurdwara committees and resident welfare associations were helping out the working poor.

Meanwhile, another set of guidelines were also issued under the Garib Kalyan Yojana (a financial relief package for COVID-19 announced on March 26), whereby the insurance cover of Rs.50 lakh for public health care providers would be now be extended to private hospital staff, retired volunteers, local urban bodies and outsourced staff recruited by government hospitals.

While State governments have been also told to set up dedicated centres for treatment and isolation, the suspension of routine tests and elective surgeries for those suffering from chronic ailments such as cancer and diabetes in some States has triggered fresh concerns. Also, the Central government’s decision to allow CGHS beneficiaries to access government public health facilities especially for chronic ailments, without extending the same facility to the general population is being viewed as discriminatory.

The Rajasthan government’s decision on March 27 to suspend outreach immunisation services owing to the lockdown has evoked a strong response from public health activists. The State chapter of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan, an organisation that campaigns for quality health care for all, pointed out that the suspension of outreach immunisation programmes will strongly affect ante natal nare and maternal and child health.