They were everywhere in the metros, large cities and in industrial belts. They would be seen under flyovers, near railway stations, drains, even squeezed between railway lines and platforms. But we couldn’t care less.

Most Indians had not been aware of the humongous problems of migrants, their subhuman existence and the neglect they suffered silently.

But the catastrophic announcement of the post-Covid19 lockdown brought larger than life images of migrant Indians in dire straits to our newspapers and TV screens, pushing them centre stage for a while.

Noticing their distress, conscientious citizens, NGOs and amorphous do-gooder groups rose to the occasion: kitchens were run, food distributed and help extended in many ways.

Governments maintained a sphinx like silence throughout their ordeal. Locking down transport of all kind added insult to injury. Everyone was supposed to stay put, but where?

Placed on the horns of a dilemma (die-if-you-do and die-if-you-don’t) many thousands of them set out on foot, crammed in empty trailers, on top of lorries and the buses available.

Not all of them made it to their villages; no one knows how many perished.

The phenomenon of inland migration has been around for a long time; these migrants are estimated to number 80 millions, up from 50 million in the last Census. The paucity of income opportunities will force them back to the cities.

The issue must be tackled on two fronts. The measures needed are not unknown, but must be implemented with a sense of purpose.

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979 was enacted to protect the rights of migrants requisitioned for work outside their domicile state.

For decades, governments have failed to implement the act’s provisions, leaving these labourers to the mercy of contractors. Tens of thousands of crore rupees of public money lie unutilised with governments in migrants’ welfare funds.

Now the opportunity presents itself to ensure migrants’ welfare by developing infrastructure and processes for creating better living conditions for them, and providing relief in times of need.

Many steps are needed to minimise the compulsions that lead people to migrate, and to diversify the areas that might attract migrant workers. Schemes like MNREGA must be made to address problems like:

– Many persons not getting work at all, or less than the promised and inadequate 100 days a year.

– Communities that are politically orphaned, economically weakened and denied an education, being exploited by the big landlords.

– Meagre, poor quality landholdings unable to sustain them.

– Lack of basic facilities such as water, sewerage, health services.

– Casteism and inequity.

Governments, especially in the states, are responsible for this calamitous situation. The expectation of better living conditions elsewhere is a strong motivation for migration.

The late President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam advocated the idea of Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA, or whole) but any cogent collation of practical solutions for rural issues remains yet on paper.

Pursuing the basic concept of PURA in mission mode, to create infrastructure alongside urban amenities, would include setting up industrial units based on (but not limited to) processing local produce and providing services for agricultural activities.

The Union government should propose a model framework with the necessary flexibility to make local changes. A large revenue village, or a cluster of small villages and hamlets, can become the nucleus of all essential services and common facilities, and promote cottage industry, to augment incomes.

It should also ensure that an adequate number of days of work are provided under MNREGA, and schemes that can provide work while repairing and improving the environment, with an eye for aesthetic improvement, will throw up ideas for each area. This could include constructing common facilities and improving and maintaining existing ones.

Public provision of education and health services must now get primacy in the process of infrastructure development. A lack of quality education adds to the hardships of the poor and marginalised families who constitute the majority of migrants.

Most village schools are poorly run, with ramshackle buildings and poorly trained teachers. Truancy among teachers is common, ostensibly on account of a lack of facilities like housing, medical care etc. The qualifications prescribed make it difficult to find teachers from local areas. Village children’s familiarity with the official state language is at best tenuous, making it difficult for them to understand lessons. Reports of casteism are rife.

While the level of learning of most children is poor and declining, as an interim measure, those who demonstrate the aptitude to teach can be drafted and trained to teach primary and middle school children.

Students will learn better if they are taught in the dialect and idiom they speak at home and in their community. Other languages can be taught as second and third languages.

Schools must also make efforts to accommodate students of different learning abilities, and keep their interest alive.

Besides regular subjects, vocational streams should be introduced to equip them for wage-work. Creating infrastructure for industrial development close to village clusters would help in this regard.

These measures will reduce the compulsion to migrate, and begin to reduce pressure on overstressed cities.

Discouraging the tendency of new industries to gravitate towards established conurbations—something that is proclaimed repeatedly but never enforced seriously—and helping footloose industry in other suitable places will open a window of opportunity for nearby smaller towns, generating wage-work directly and indirectly.

As there are limits and it will take time to become a viable alternative, migration to large cities will soon resume. As urbanisation gathers momentum in mofussil India, more problems of migrants will emerge. Areas can be earmarked in all such places for providing shelter to migrants.

The cost in terms of public money will be more than compensated by the social benefits, which will also outweigh the indeterminate economic and human costs.

It can put the future of tens of millions on a better footing, and God forbid, if another cataclysmic event hits the world, governments will be better prepared to deal with it.

Arun Kumar served as Secretary to the Government of India