Centre passes the buck to state governments on the coronavirus lockdown disaster

Migrant labourers make their way to Delhi's Sarai Kale Khan area on 29 March. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
30 March, 2020

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abruptly announced lockdown of the country rendered millions of migrant workers homeless and out of work, many of them set out on journeys back to their hometowns by foot. With many lives lost in transit, the lockdown has since become a humanitarian disaster of its own as India sees its largest internal migration since Partition. On 29 March, the ministry of home affairs issued a set of mandates for state and local governments to deal with the fallout. However, these demands—clearly an attempt to pass the buck to the state and local governments—threaten to sow further confusion and result in further persecution of migrant workers and their families.  

On Sunday morning, in a videoconference with officials of the ministry of home affairs, state chief secretaries and directors general of police, the cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba ordered that borders between states be strictly sealed, and encouraged stern action against those violating lockdown orders. But Gauba also acknowledged that many had already crossed state lines, and demanded that state governments enforce 14-day quarantines for all those who had. In a letter, also released on 29 March, the ministry of home affairs directed the state and union territory governments and authorities to “take necessary action and issue necessary orders to their district magistrate/deputy commissioner and senior superintendant of police/superintendant of police/deputy commissioner of police” to take five measures to mitigate the suffering caused by the mass migration, effective immediately. These include providing support for stranded migrants; enforcing a one-month-long freeze on rent collection; banning evictions; ensuring that employers remit pay during the period that their establishment is closed due to the shutdown; and assuring that all migrants undergo quarantine for fourteen days in government-run facilities after arriving at their destinations. 

The first point in the letter orders the state and union territory governments to “ensure adequate arrangements of temporary shelters, and provisions of food etc. for the poor and needy people, including migrant labourers, stranded due to lockdown measures in their respective areas.” This measure aims to keep migrants in place, and prevent them from undertaking the mass exoduses that have begun to sweep the nation. Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, has called upon migrants stranded in Delhi to stay put. “The governments of UP and Delhi have arranged buses. Still, I appeal all to remain where they are. We have made arrangements for stay and food. Please stay at home. Do not go back to your village, otherwise the objective of the lockdown will fail,” Kejriwal said in a Hindi tweet. The Delhi government has also promised to provide food to four lakh poverty-stricken people in 224 night shelters and 325 schools. But measures such as these do not seem to be adequate incentive for many to remain in place—on Saturday, thousands of workers crowded the Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi clamouring for seats on the over 1,000 buses arranged by the Uttar Pradesh and Delhi governments. 

The second point of the letter orders that “the migrant people, who have moved out to reach their home states/home towns, must be kept in the nearest shelter by the respective state/union territory government quarantine facilities after proper screening for a minimum period of 14 days as per standard health protocol.” This is a departure from the centre’s previous policy on quarantining its citizens—when Indian and foreign nationals arrived from abroad via air in mid March, they were allowed to self-quarantine for fourteen days in their own homes, rather than in government facilities. But Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have already made government-quarantine mandatory: Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has ordered quarantine for the approximately one hundred thousand people who have arrived in the state over the past four days, while Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, has also called on local officials to set up temporary camps in which to quarantine returning residents. In Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, in an incident caught on video, migrant laborers were forced to huddle in a crowd while authorities in hazmat suits sprayed them with chlorine and water.  

“If they enforce this without coming in with an economic package that will ensure that their families will survive, it will be a cruelty compounded upon cruelty,” Harsh Mander, the director of the the think tank Center for Equity Studies, told me. “I cannot imagine where millions of people are going to be housed in quarantine. I have no idea how it would be feasible. It is a cruel but also unimplementable idea.” 

The centre’s fragmented directions risk inciting further confusion and unrest in an already -chaotic situation. Citing the videoconference meeting with the union cabinet secretary and the union home secretary, the director general of police of Haryana sent out a letter to the police force of his state, commanding that they strictly enforce measures to prevent transit across state borders. The letter stated that people attempting to cross borders would be turned back “without exception,” and that “persons who are traveling on foot within the districts on highways/roads should be picked up, placed in buses and left in localities from where they started.” The letter also stated that directions had been issued from the state home department to “declare big indoor stadiums or other similar facilities as Temporary Jails,” where people who are found to be violating the lockdown order will be detained. “The State Government has directed to follow a Zero Tolerance Policy towards anyone who violates the lockdown guidelines,” the letter states. It is clear that in many cases, those crossing borders will likely be met with punishment and detention, rather than aid or even a facility in which to undergo a 14-day quarantine.  

The third point in the home ministry’s letter mandates that “all the employers, be it in the Industry or in the shops and commercial establishments, shall make payment of wages of their workers, at their work places, on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown.” The fourth point states that “where ever the workers, including the migrants, are living in rented accommodation, the landlords of those properties shall not demand payment of rent for a period of one month.” And the fifth and final point demands that “If any landlord is forcing labourers and students to vacate their premises, they will be liable for action under the Act.” 

But it is unclear to what extent these ambitious policies can and will be implemented. “It is an order that is in some ways unenforceable,” said Malini Aisola, a public health advocate and co-convener of the All India Drug Action Network. “They have appealed to landlords to not collect rent, and to shops, specific kinds of shops, to continue to give pay. It’s not really realistic, and I don’t think anyone believes that people will really follow that. And when it comes to making arrangements for these people, who is responsible for that?” 

“It’s very clear that there was no planning and no forethought before the lockdown. Nobody was really prepared—they were doing a lockdown because they were trying to implement good public health strategy, but they have completely failed. Even from the public health perspective, this is very poor policy,” Aisola said. “And the fact that the government did not respond to it for multiple days until it came out in international newspapers… I don’t know what to say. It’s heartbreaking.”