Coronavirus lockdown: Centre may allow states to transport migrants

Topics Coronavirus | Lockdown

The 21-day lockdown, which came into force on Wednesday, has triggered an exodus of migrant workers from many cities.
The Centre is considering allowing state governments to transport migrant workers who are unable to return to their villages owing to a countrywide lockdown, imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). According to a plan in the works, the central government may issue guidelines to the states to screen such workers and open road transportation for them.

The 21-day lockdown, which came into force on Wednesday, has triggered an exodus of migrant workers from many cities. The government has drawn flak for not providing transportation and other facilities, with a large number of them heading home on foot.

“There are discussions taking place in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Some migrant workers are finding it difficult to return home and are stranded in the states where they have been working for long. Some state governments have requested transportation service to carry these workers back. The states are awaiting directions from the PMO,” a senior government official said, requesting anonymity.

The official, however, added that there was a risk of transmission of the virus through transporting workers from one place to another. On Tuesday, the Uttarakhand government had issued a public notice saying it was ready to make arrangements to pick up migrant workers belonging to the state, from Delhi.

However, the state government couldn’t transport the workers back as it wasn't given permission to ply the bus service. A state government official said it was preparing a list of migrant workers who were stranded and would “hopefully start the first bus service on Saturday”.

On Thursday, the Union home ministry acknowledged the scale of the problem in a communication to the state governments. “I am aware that states are taking various steps in this regard but restlessness still persists among the workers in the unorganised sector, particularly the stranded migrant workers,” Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla said in a letter to all the chief secretaries on Friday.

“This needs to be handled urgently and sensitively to stem their exodus from their existing locations, as also prevent any disruption to law and order,” Bhalla added.

The home ministry has told the state governments to ensure adequate support, including food and shelter, to migrant workers “who are being forced to return to their domicile states or are trying to do so”. The states may give them shelter in disaster relief camps, the ministry advised.

Private airlines have also offered to make their fleet available to carry migrant workers to their home states but have been hamstrung by a “hawkish response” from the government so far. “I have suggested that our fleet is available for the government if they want to use air transport to carry migrant workers back to their home,” Ajay Singh, CMD of SpiceJet, said. GoAir and IndiGo have also told the Centre that they were ready to use their aircraft to carry migrant workers.

“We would be extremely proud to be associated with critical life-saving activity at this hour of crisis,” IndiGo CEO Ronojoy Dutta wrote to Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri. However, airline executives said the government had been unwilling to give any permission for such flights. Migrant workers have been seen walking on foot for hundreds of kilometers across states — be it Delhi, Telangana or Kerala — to reach their home states. To add to their pain, the local police have been strict in implementing the orders, going to the extent of punishing some migrant workers who were seen on the road.

The situation is so bad that on Thursday, the Maharashtra Police found over 300 migrant workers crammed into two container trucks coming from Telangana.

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