This article has been co-authored by Ojasav Chitranshi of National Law University, Jodhpur and Stuti Dhawan of ILS, Pune. The article talks about different plights of migrant workers during Covid-19 lockdown in a summarized manner.
Table of Contents
- Who are migrant workers?
- The defining image of India
- An unplanned lockdown
- Desperation to go home
- Migrant workers in cities
- Shramik special trains
COVID-19 pandemic and the eventuating loss of life and livelihoods, demonstrates a prodigious catastrophe- a socio economic calamity that has left all countries of the world in disarray. Countries across the globe are making headway to tackle this crisis. In pursuance to this the Indian government has also announced and enforced a nationwide lockdown as a combative measure to prevent the further transmission of the deadly virus without giving time for people to adjust to these stringent conditions. Though necessary, this move has unfortunately engendered a reverse exodus of migrant labourers, the magnitude of which has not been expected and witnessed till date. These migrant workers are the worst hit during this grave emergency period. “Whether they are international migrants or internal migrants, such workers are the most disproportionately affected given their inadequate and crowded living conditions, limited access to health care and basic services and exploitative labour system.”
Who are migrant workers?
With the growing pace of economic globalization, the number of migrant workers is also increasing expeditiously. Unemployment and increasing poverty have prompted many workers to seek work elsewhere. They often move from villages to cities to look for work as domestic helpers, drivers, gardeners or as daily wagers on construction sites, building malls, flyovers and homes, or as street vendors. This virus has not only evinced the selfless contribution of the health workers towards the common but also enhanced public awareness of the ‘pivotal role of the migrant workers in our economy.’ Being the most vulnerable part of the “informal sector”, they make up 80% of India’s workforce. These formal enterprises- the so-called parallel economy-account for around 40% of GDP and weigh about some 60% of Indian economy.
The defining image of India
Despite forming the backbone of our country’s economy and struggling so damn hard for survival these forlorn migrant workers have been ignored badly by the government before announcing the lockdown. The government pretended that migrant workers did not exist. There wasn’t any guideline, contingency plans or any coherent response by them. Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister of our country also withdrew her hand by announcing nothing for these globe-trotters except an unworkable scheme for construction workers. They just became the invisible part of our ecosystem that never seems to be much of a consideration for politicians. Despite their number they have no political clout because when Election Day comes they are usually in the city where they work and thereby do not cast a ballot. Not only this, the nationwide lockdown was also accompanied by complete suspension of all transport facilities and strict sealing of inter-state borders as a precaution against the rapid spread of coronavirus disease. In a matter of four hours, the unforeseen public health catastrophe provoked an even larger humanitarian crisis, the burden of which has to be carried by the most susceptible section of its population. The decision unleashed such chaos that India is still struggling to deal with.
Desperation to go home
Thousands of destitute migrant labourers without the availability of basic needs and services such as food and shelter were compelled to abandon the very cities they have built with their sweat, toil and hard work.“Many indigent migrant workers with bags perched on their heads and children in their arms were seen walking down highways in a desperate attempt to return to their villages hundreds of miles away.” Each of them realised that they could not afford to stay in the city if they had no income. They are rarely part of a trade union and typically work without any contract or benefits. They are hired through multiple contractors on casual basis and face precarity of employment, low pay scales and are deprived of pay hikes, paid leaves etc. and due to the unanticipated crisis of corona virus the workers are exposed to the exploitative condition. The plight faced by these workers was revealed through the unjustified treatment that they had to face during this lockdown at the construction site of metro in Bengaluru.
Over and above it was hard to find and identify the employer or the company that hires them because they are solely dependent on the petty contractors. The case of “self-employed” migrant workers was even worse. Such a situation of hopelessness and despair led to continued fleeing of many migrants from the cities. “They left in huge numbers to their villages on foot, braving hunger and thirst, the scorching summer sun, police brutalities, forested areas and the threat of disease and death.” Several people even lost their life in such inhumane conditions.
It was very difficult for the poverty-stricken workers who were trying to make it home through the thin line between possible infection and starvation. “A 12 year old female migrant of Telangana died on her way while walking to her home during this lockdown. Jamlo Madkam also lost her life when her frail body succumbed to exhaustion.” There are numerous horrifying instances occurring each day and still the responsible ones are silent for the loss. The backbone of our country’s development is on the verge of hunger. Due to lack of proper planning, stringent measures, blatant neglect and brutalities faced by the workers the persistent hunger has turned into mass starvation.
Migrant workers in cities
Starvation is not only a threat for the crowd gathered on the highways but also a menace to those workers who couldn’t leave for their homes. “These stranded labourers can be divided into two types- one that is visible and the other invisible.” Those who are in government shelter homes, receiving aids and health care facilities from them are the visible ones forming the front pages of the media whereas the ones who are living under the flyovers, sleep on footpaths, stuck in workplaces, labour camps and slums constitute the invisible section who are ignored and neglected by the authorities and even by the fourth pillar of our country i.e., the media. They have to stand for hours and hours to get food. The condition and facilities of the shelter homes defer too. Just a single line in the heart of each worker depicts the truth of the society during this rampant sitch – “If not by virus, we will die of hunger.”
Not only this the centre refuses to grant rations to those who don’t have ration cards and even did not pay a head to the repeated request of opening community kitchens under the National Food Security Act. All of these responsibilities were casually delegated to the state government. The effect of this economic distress is not only limited to the forlorn labourers but also to their innocent children. Many children are dying on their way to home and others becoming more susceptible to the viral disease. It is very much possible that this COVID-19 crisis will push millions of vulnerable children into child labour. Every desperate labourer wants only one question to be answered – “The government is providing food for three months. But what will happen after that? This is the time we grow food for the whole year and the government is not letting us to go back to home and do our part of the work.”
After facing all such alarming levels of vulnerability and extreme indignity, if migrant workers are demanding to go home then they have to face grievous brutalities and injuries by the police officials. The government has taken steps to provide rations, shelters and relief to pay rents but it is still not operationalized in a strict manner and the reality is somewhat different. Thus numerous attempts are made by these poor migrant workers at various places through various means but still could not stand against the brutality and nepotism of the central authorities. Many migrant workers and their children in Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh were sprayed with disinfectant under the namesake of sanitization.
Due to the rumours of train services restarting thousand of migrant workers gathered near a railway station in Mumbai city. They demanded that authorities should arrange transports to send them back to their home town but the police, instead used sticks to disperse them. Around the same time, in Gujarat many textile workers of the Surat city protested demanding passage to home but they had to face severe consequences by the officials. These incidents are not limited to a single place or to a definite time. They are a spotlight to the plights of millions of penurious Indian workers who migrate from villages to cities in search of livelihood. These instances are more than enough to make everyone realise that living away from home is never easy.
Shramik special trains
Due to the continuous extension of lockdown and the distress faced by over 14 crores migrant labourers, the prime minister of the country Narendra Modi finally announced to run ‘Shramik special trains’ on the occasion of labours day to transport migrant workers and others stranded due to lockdown back to their native states. The government should have taken this vital decision a bit earlier and a proper timely mechanism must have been adopted but nevertheless a step for the betterment of these begarly migrant workers has been taken but it wasn’t so simple and easy as it seems. Every migrant worker thought that it was an end to their struggle and hoped to reach to their families and hometown as soon as possible. But it wasn’t the reality. First the migrant labourers whose income have plummeted as a result to lockdown have been told to pay to board special trains taking them back to their homes. Not only is the incredulity of the train fare but also the Indian railways are charging more than the normal fare.
The government isn’t realising that these poor workers who have sacrificed their life and family for building the infrastructure of our country are unemployed for the past 50 days. They are struggling day and night to remain alive in such stringent conditions. Some are getting food others aren’t. Everybody knows the ground reality of the measures taken by the government. From where will they bring the money to board the trains? Running more special trains free of cost is not a big deal for Indian railways. There have been past instances where the Indian railways have run the trains for free of cost like in 2015 they had run free trains for Nepalese in the aftermath of an earthquake. Moreover in the course of the pandemic the government has brought Indian citizens living abroad, free of cost.
Therefore it is a political decision to not allow cheap labour to escape when there is a probability of their need by the industries in the coming days. These are basically the ways of persuading the workers not to go back and thus creating a hostage situation. Isn’t such extreme action of the government violating the right of the labourers to move freely and reside wherever they want. They cannot be restricted indefinitely. In addition to this another difficulty for migrant workers is that they have to obtain a medical certificate stating that they have no flu like symptoms from local clinics and doctors’ that are again not easily available and they are charged for it also.
Furthermore it seems that trains are only catering to those who are residing in government run shelter homes or quarantine camps, whose names are forwarded by the host and receiving state governments. There is a lack of standard protocols, strict guidelines and unavailability of timely updates. All such ad hoc measures lead to discrimination and inequality among the marginalised section of the society. These migrant workers come from the most socially marginalised categories and also overlap with the most impoverished and vulnerable category of workforce, earning the lowest and now if the authorities also start discriminating between them on various cultural, religious and economic grounds then how could the nation prosper and fight with all its might and strength at this point of time. “All such discriminatory measures will enhance the deep fault lines and tensions embedded in the Indian society and its development story.”
Therefore, we must realize that migrants are not mere labour power for the country but an equal citizen and thereby should not be denied of any justified right that they possess. The government must take urgent measures to mitigate the disastrous consequences of the pandemic on the migrant workers. There must be easy and equal access to rations, safe shelters with proper food and health care facilities, presence of active urban local bodies, trade unions, strict orders and actions against the harassment and discrimination faced by these migrant workers and a lot more necessary and efficient measures required to be taken. Shramik special trains must be run free of cost with increase in their numbers and no leverage must be provided on any grounds. Hence a proper mechanism and timely implementation is the most crucial point to be kept in mind during such unforeseeable circumstances. Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights also pointed out that, “This is the time for domestic solidarity and unity.” She encouraged the Government of India “towork shoulder-to-shoulder with civil societies to reach to the most vulnerable sectors of society, ensuring no one is left behind in this time of crisis.”