New Delhi: Even as the labour ministry told parliament that it did not have data on deaths of migrant workers, the home ministry claimed on Tuesday that the large scale migration of labourers had been triggered by “fake news”.
The home ministry was asked a series of questions by Trinamool Congress MP Mala Roy on the reasons why labourers had to walk home and on the steps taken to protect them before the announcement of the lockdown on March 24. Roy also asked for the number of migrant labourers who died on their journey home.
“The migration of large number of migrant workers was triggered by panic created by fake news regarding duration of lockdown, and people, especially migrant labourers, were worried about adequate supply of basic necessities like food, drinking water, health services and shelter,” said the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nitayanand Rai, in a written reply.
This is not the first time that the government has peddled the ‘fake news’ story behind the movement of migrants.
In a hearing at the end of March, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that the exodus of migrant workers from Delhi and other cities which started after Prime Minister Modi announced the first lockdown from March 25 was triggered by “fake news” in the media. Though the government provided no evidence to back up this claim, the bench headed by Chef Justice S.A. Bobde took Mehta’s words at face value and declared “it… is not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media”.
This charge of ‘fake news’ was repeated again with the MHA – as first reported by The Hindu – submitting an affidavit to the court on June 5 asserting that “due to circulation of certain misinformation in the area of GNCT (Delhi), thousands of migrants gathered at Anand Vihar bus terminal and Ghazipur border area on March 28. This gathering occurred due to fake media reports that 1,000 buses for travel of stranded migrants to their home State have been arranged and would be available at the said points.”
On Tuesday, Nitayanand Rai also claimed that the Central government was “fully conscious” of this and took “all necessary measures to ensure that during the period of the inevitable lockdown, no citizen should be deprived of basic amenities of food, drinking water, medical facilities etc”.
The minister claimed that control rooms were functional in MHA from March 21. “These control rooms, inter alia, attended to the grievances of stranded persons including migrant workers and promptly resolved these grievances relating to food, transport, shelter, etc. States and Union Territories were also advised to set up control rooms with help lines and to appoint nodal officers”.
The home ministry also stated that the Central government allowed state administrations to dip into the State Disaster Response Fund on March 20 to make provision for homeless people and migrant workers. The Centre released an advance of Rs 11,092 crore to SDRF to states on April 3.
On the query of data of deaths, Rai answered, “The details regarding number of migrant workers who died while returning to their home states is not centrally maintained”.
The first day of the monsoon session saw several MPs ask the centre about the problems faced by migrant labourers during lockdown.
The Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Santosh Gangwar, said while state-wise data was “not available on assistance provided to migrant workers,” India as a nation responded to the “unprecedented human crisis” through the various governments, local bodies, self-help groups and non-governmental organisations and professionals.
On a question whether thousands of migrant labourers have died during lockdown, Gangwar said, “No such data is available”.
To questions on whether free rations was distributed to all ration card holders, he answered that state-wise details were not available. “However, 80 crore people are being provided additional 5 kg wheat or rice and 1 kg of preferred pulses, free of cost every month till November 2020,” he said.
Following the government’s reply, there had been sharp criticism from opposition members, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
The Labour ministry issued a detailed press release on Wednesday which listed welfare measures that the government had apparently taken during this lockdown.
The press release said that while the registration of migrant workers is a state subject, due to COVID-19, the ministry took the initiative to collect data of migrant workers.
“On the basis of information collected from various state governments, around one crore migrant workers have gone back to their source state during COVID-19,” it said.