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Odisha's migration crisis 'strikes a nerve', highlights deep-rooted vulnerabilities

By Warsha Thakur*
The world is in the throes of a massive crisis, one that is not unprecedented, but perhaps that caught us off-guard. At a time when enemies were being realised through the markedness of borders, nationalities and wealth, the Covid-19 brought to us the infallibility of human life and its significant fear -- death by disease.
As the number of coronavirus cases is spreading with an alarming rapidity, nationally and globally, it is extraordinary to witness the human spirit come together in fighting the pandemic, but even in the togetherness, systemic inequalities remain.
After the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, we saw millions of migrant workers emerge on the road walking to their respective hometown left with no other choice. Both the state and the central governments seemed unprepared in facing this crisis. As of now the status quo pertaining to the migrant crisis remains. A second round of lockdown and we have committed the same mistake twice over not catering to the plight of a whole working class.
I spoke to seven sarpanches from across four district, i.e. Kendrapara, Sambalpur, Mayurbhanj and Jagatsinghpur, of Odisha, a state that witnesses lakhs of voluntary and involuntary migration.
The sarpanch of village panchayat Ghondash, district Jagasinghpur, tells me there are no cases of coronavirus and all the residents under his gram panchayat are strictly abiding by the state health department prescribed norms. Other than the farmers and the owner of the local grocery store, nobody ventures out, he informs.
This gram panchayat houses a population of approximately 5,000 people and nearly 300 inhabitants work outside the state to pursue better work opportunities. Popular destinations are Hyderabad, Chennai and, Goa. They work in the hotel industry and some in the gas factory. Currently, 200-210 workers are stuck outside the state due to the nationwide lockdown.
Most of them couldn’t return partly due to the sudden nationwide lockdown and partly due to growing stigma at home – village residents were highly apprehensive of returning migrants and consequent contamination. The sarpanch tells me that two of the workers had to let go of their train tickets in fear of the backlash from their own folks. Presently, they are stranded in Goa.
The sarpanch from Mayurbhanj district informs me that mostly all’s well and there’s enough supply of grains and no cases of the dreaded virus is reported so far. Jasipur Gram Panchayat of Mayurbhanj district is home to nearly 4000 people and about 200-250 people travel to another state to earn a living.
They work as craftsmen, labourers and chefs managing a decent income, otherwise not possible at home. Popular destinations are Surat, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Most of them haven’t been able to return to their home state. A similar story reiterates across Mayurbhanj district.
Kusiapal Gram Panchayat of Kendrapara district has a similar story. Home to about 4,900 people, about 300-400 fellow natives are waiting in anticipation of returning home facing a harsh lockdown but without any social protection. Most of them are stranded in Surat, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Four of the returnees are in quarantine over suspected symptoms.
Popular destination of Odisha migrants are Surat, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Most of them haven’t been able to return to their home state
Jamujori village panchayat, home to nearly 5,000 people, of Sambalpur is doing well for its residents. Food supply is enough and social distancing is religiously practiced with no cases of coronavirus reported thus far. But uncertainty over the return of approximately 300-310 fellow residents looms large. They are stranded in Delhi, West Bengal and Gujarat. 

The conspicuous migrant workers... who are they?

The financially precarious service workers ensuring speedy delivery of online purchases, the craftsman who toils at construction sites, the weaver who labours in catastrophic textile factories, the waiters at restaurants, employees of taxi industry and, many such workers crucial to the functioning of a city otherwise invisible; find themselves on the wrong side of a socio-economic strata in the face of disasters, natural or man-made.
The truth here is simple -- systemic social inequalities make some groups more vulnerable than others, and the question of intent and care for the socially & economically backward, if it exists, is important but that does not remedy hunger, loss of jobs and be wilderness stuck in a foreign land.
The last pandemic, flu of 1918, wiped out 6% of India’s population. At the time, 6% of the population equals 14 million. According to research reports workers at low end jobs and poor formed the highest proportion of the 6% population. In absence of an effective social security net, it’s obvious the poor yield the worst consequences.
Migration experts and scholars identify Odisha as one of the popular source regions for interstate movement of workers. Some evident reasons are climate driven (cyclone prone areas), lack of work opportunities and better wages. Odisha is arguably doing well in facing this crisis with its popular cash in hand, pension disbursement model and distribution of 1 kg rice and 5 kg of daal to its ration cardholders for 3 months starting April.
An important caveat to note, this probably leaves out the non-ration card holders, who have failed to obtain one in the past, for reasons pertaining to identification hurdles including failure of biometric authentications. Identification authentication is critical but not while many die due to hunger and an impending disease.
Some arrangements pertaining to its migrant population such as setting up of 36 camps in the state as well as control rooms to assist migrant workers from other states is in place. The State has also urged Odia associations in other states to help stranded migrants.
However, the success of a concrete strategy to bring back its migrant population depends on the speedy concurrence of national and sub national plan of action. Immediate provisioning of railways to the migrant population is crucial to help them reach home.
As we progress through the difficult times, acknowledgment of the migrant working class is crucial both at the central and state level to remedy this disaster. Images and reports emerging on the migrant crisis strike a nerve and highlight the deep rooted vulnerabilities of an entire working class of people. The outcome of this pandemic is uncertain. But when the dust settles, just like every other Indian disaster, there will be another tale to solidify who matter and who don’t.
---
* Alumni of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad

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