The outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic on an unprecedented scale has not only precipitated a global health crisis but also devastated economies and businesses the world over. India is on a comparatively higher risk severity for coronavirus as compared to other countries owing to a high population density and weak healthcare delivery infrastructure. The magnitude of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the pandemic has emerged as an existential crisis for the human race.
It has been found that the only effective way to contain the virus that spreads through community transmission is to impose stringent lockdown conditions. While the coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown has led to social distancing and curtailed the proliferation of covid-19 to a greater extent, it has led to adverse economic fallouts for marginalized sections of the populations.
With economic activity coming to a virtual standstill in India, the impact has been particularly severe for the migrant labor community migrating from villages to work in the unorganized sector across the country’s towns and cities. They survive on daily wages and have absolutely no job and income security.
Comprising largely of indigenous tribal populations, migrant laborers are staring at a bleak economic future. Excluded from universal healthcare facilities and education, this class of the working population is at a higher risk of being impacted by social and economic upheavals like covid-19. With little or no financial savings and no source of a second income, it becomes difficult for them to survive in tough times. Faced with the prospect of social exclusion, they are often relegated to the fringes of society with no decision making powers and absence of human rights.
Stranded without food, faced with loss of income and with no access to livelihood sustenance, migrant workers across the country are making an attempt to return in large numbers to their native places. This phenomenon is known as reverse migration. A joint study by Denmark-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs and the Indigenous Lawyers Association of India has concluded that the tribal communities in the country face the risk of being endangered on account of large-scale reverse migration in the post-lockdown phase. The tribal population of the country is largely concentrated in the ten states of the country and the North-Eastern region.
The government should place an onus on rolling out suitable regulatory measures and policy interventions to uplift and empower marginalized sections of the population. Priority focus should be given to ensure that vulnerable communities like tribal migrant laborers are integrated in the social and economic mainstream. The outreach of social welfare programs like MGNREGA should be expanded to benefit poor tribal populations and help them avert the spiral of debt and poverty.
The government should increase fund allocation to the scheme and ensure that every man/woman of working age are guaranteed 200 man days of work instead of 100 man days. The assurance of fixed days of work will provide them with financial stability and economic development. It will also compensate for the lack of wages accrued on account of job loss in cities.
The tribal population in backward areas of the country should be encouraged to take up modern agricultural practices. They should be provided training in advanced farming techniques and prompted to take up commercial farming on a large scale. This will help tribal farmers transition from a subsistence income to earning a market-based income.
The government should focus on building a robust agricultural supply chain and marketing channels for the transportation and sale of agricultural produce. The tribal community should be given control of their productive resources. Emphasis should also be on promoting agro-based industries like animal husbandry and building a strong rural economy.
This will not only provide self-sustenance and economic progress to tribal communities but also not force them to migrate to cities in search of employment.
It is high time that policy makers concentrate on fostering an all-inclusive social and economic development model that stresses on equal opportunities and welfare for all citizens of the country. The key to mitigating the sufferings of tribal migrant workers and other marginalized communities and ensure a dignified existence to them is to bridge the gap between urban India and rural Bharat.