Saturday, 3 June, 2023

Plight Of Labourers And Migrant Workers

Namrata Sharma

DURING Manmohan Adhikary’s premier-ship in 1994/95, I had the opportunity of interviewing him on several occasions. Once I asked him why they still kept the name of his party as Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) even though their manifesto was social democratic in nature. His answer was simple and to the point. He said that as they had led the communist movement in the country, their party would want to stick with the ‘communist’ name and to foster the sentiments and commitments of their movement. I wonder what this revered communist leader would have felt about the plight of the labourers and the migrant workers who are desperately trying to reach their homes to be with their families after finding themselves suddenly unemployed because of the coronavirus pandemic. For these pedestrians their real enemy could very well be the government and not the COVID 19.
The communist movement arose as a response to the plight of labourers, farmers and those who were the most oppressed. Now the current government formed by the Nepal Communist Party should urgently address the plight of our labourers, the migrant workers who want to return to their families in their native land and also the Indian migrant workers who are stuck on Nepal’s side of the border. It is very saddening to see on TV and read online the desperation of the domestic labourers who are walking on the national highways days on end with children and women -- some of whom are pregnant-- to reach their homes to be with their families. The government should guarantee the fundamental rights of these workers and keep them safe from being infected with the coronavirus. This is an emergency situation where it is not just enough to highlight the ‘lockdown’ issue and forget about the movements of these labourers who are potential vectors of the coronavirus.
Both Nepal and the Indian governments are facing huge challenges to keep the migrant workers on both sides of the open Nepal-India border safe during this coronavirus epidemic. Therefore, a good management system should be put in place to control the spread of the virus and also make sure that the basic human rights do not get denied for anyone.
A senior journalist friend and I recently had a telephonic conversation on this topic. He pointed out to me the fact that all along the East West highway of Nepal there were hotels, teashops, lodges and eateries. Most of these business centres are now empty and are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Couldn’t the government now make arrangements for the people going home on foot to be lodged and fed in these places for necessary period of time and then deliver them to their destinations after doing SWAP tests? This will not cost too much for the government and the shops along the East-West highway will have some income generation. However, while doing this the basic principles of safety of using masks, gloves and washing hands need to be maintained to stop possible infection of the service providers and the pedestrians. If the shop, hotel and lodge owners do not want to provide services, maybe arrangements can be made by the government to let the pedestrians stay in these places and use the facilities and cook for themselves? The other option that I could think of was the possibility of making arrangements by GoN in coordination with the Federal Provinces and Centre to transport these vulnerable people to their homes.
In a Viber conversation with with me, Dr. Sharad Onta, a public health expert, said that the first thing the government should do was to stop the people before they start the walk right at the spot of origin, not by coercion, but by providing them with necessary support including food, shelter and sanitation. He explained that this was the basic principle of lockdown, to hold people where they are. This could be the best option for those who are still stranded in different places and those who need to go home. But for those who are already on the streets, Dr. Onta feels that rather than keeping them in shelters along the way, the best option would be for the government to arrange transportation and take them in batches to their destinations. There is international precedence of how many people could be carried in differently-sized buses and the necessary precautionary measures that were required for the drivers and the travelers. After reaching their districts, arrangements should be made for mass quarantine for required period of time with necessary tests and other precautionary measures before they were allowed to return to their homes.
Some efforts of providing food and shelter and transportation by the government and local people are being done. But it is not enough. COVID-19 management for these vulnerable people should be done with respect and in a proper manner to maintain their human dignity and plan for protection of all.
It is high time that the government, which was formed by the amalgamation of UML and the Maoist party of Nepal, takes care of the workers and labourers who are already out on the streets and provide them with their basic human rights and stop others from being infected. It is equally imperative that the government comes up with policies to prevent mass walks in the future as there is no saying how long this lockdown or a series of lockdowns in the near future will last.

(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights campaigner. ,Twitter handle: NamrataSharma)