On 1 May, Gulshan Kumar, a 22-year-old youth who came to Hyderabad looking for a job with 25 other men from Bihar’s Bhagalpur, was trying to call numbers provided by the Central government to assist stranded migrants in getting home. He got them as a WhatsApp forward. “There are 15 state-wise numbers. But we can’t get through any of them,” he says. Gulshan is among the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers stranded in various parts of India, figuring out their way to reach home. Gulshan says despite all the “efforts” of the government, the lockdown has been a nightmare for him and others in a similar situation.
India is now in the sixth week of COVID-19 lockdown which began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the first 21-day nationwide shutdown on 24 March, 2020. According to government estimates, the total number of coronavirus positive patients in India has crossed the 42,500 mark with over 1,300 deaths so far.
The centrepiece of this crisis unfolding in the subcontinent, however, is the hapless labour class — most of them migrant workforce — which after over a month in lockdown, find themselves facing worse hardships despite “welfare” measures announced by Central and state governments. In fact, the unfolding humanitarian crisis has unmasked the nation’s abject apathy towards the people who not only form 90 percent of India’s workforce but also are the mainstay of the national labour force. They are our own.
“The goal of nation-building in the early decades of the Indian republic was largely a shared vision, and thus, while the Indian State did not necessarily become a worker or proletarian state, its adoption of a state-led mixed economy (combining capitalist and socialist principles) and an overall, a pro-poor welfare orientation was able to accommodate the labour question, so to speak, within its overall development paradigm,” says Professor Vandana Swami, who work in the areas of historical sociology, the political economy of development, environmental history and social theory. Essentially, what it means is we were supposed to take care of our own.
The media has extensively covered the topic, especially since it has impacted the migrant workforce most across the subcontinent. Migrant labour, while bearing many of the consequences of the lockdown, remain largely invisible — Who are they? What is the nature of their work? How many migrant workers currently are in India? Do they vote? What is their contribution to the Indian economy? — there is no substantial data to answer any of these vital questions. We only have estimates. These migrants are barely considered in the policy-making decisions taken.
Labour law is a vast and complex subject in Indian polity. The Constitution provides certain laws and acts to ensure workers’ safety, wage security and other social security benefits. Even though the right to work is not legally enforceable, it is part of the Directive Principle of State Policy, and it is read along with the right to life, guaranteed in Article 21. While the cluster of labour protection laws is limited, they do contain reasonable starting points. For instance, the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; Workers Compensation Act, 1923; Contract Labour Act, 1970; Bonded Labour Act, 1976; Inter-state Migrant Workers Act, 1979; Factories Act and some others have sought to provide safeguards for workers.
Speaking to Firstpost, Vandana, who is also a faculty member at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, says, “In practice though, they are marked by several loopholes and weak enforcement of provisions, so much so that labour protection often meets with all kinds of violations. The fact that over the decades, almost 90 percent of the Indian workforce is employed in the informal, unorganised and unregulated sector makes it extremely hard to implement and follow up on these laws. In recent years, the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008, has tried to remedy this situation, although it remains weak and diluted and the possibility that this Act could be an aid to workers remains heavily in doubt.”
Benoy Peter, executive director at the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) points at the obvious malady. “There is no government data on India’s migrant population,” he says.
The last survey done by the NSSO in 2007-08 estimated the migrant population in India to be 15.2 million. The data is outdated and useless to design any strategy to help the labourers. Experts said that given that measuring migration patterns is tricky, the survey gives no clear picture and as an exercise was not even followed up. “It’s a gross underestimation,” Peter says.
According to Peter, the exclusion of the migrant workforce from policy-making and our collective consciousness has been brought to focus during this pandemic. “Their emergence in such numbers from the shadows of megacities is an urgent reminder to reimagine our society anchored in constitutional principles,” he says. It’s also clear that various regimes have repeatedly left them behind. “Year after year we have favoured urbanisation and disengaged with rural India. The regimes have favoured neo-liberal policies which gratify the capitalists,” says Peter.
“Migrants are the most difficult to reach because of their trans-localism and location in the labour market,” says Professor Ravi Srivastava, director of Centre for Employment Studies at the Institute for Human Development. “This pandemic has exposed faultlines in the labour market and in society with migrants facing discrimination and lack of citizenship rights,” he adds.
Tokenism in the name of relief
Ajay Prasad, a migrant labourer from Jharkhand’s Latehar district, has been stranded in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut with 25 other men since early March. All of them hail from Latehar and are circular migrants — those who travel back and forth between the host and the source state in search of employment which also represents an established pattern of population mobility. Ajay, who has been in touch with this reporter for over a month now, called in distress soon after the Ministry of Home Affairs allowed migrants to return home by buses. “Kuch number diyen hain, lekin lag ek bhi nahi raha hai (We were given a few numbers but none of them are reachable),” says Ajay. He added that the others are frantic to leave as well, but there is no information.
Ajay forwarded two messages that he received on WhatsApp. He said both messages came from random sources. The messages read: “Honorable Chief Minister Hemant Soren Ji has appointed Nodal Officers for all the states to assist children in other states who are stranded in Jharkhand. For any assistance, contact the following appointed officials.” Fifteen numbers were provided under it. Ajay says he called but there was no response.
Ajay was not the only one trying to make sense of the ad hoc and vague Central government order. It should also be kept in mind that most of the migrant labourers who seek to return don’t have a way of receiving, reading or even comprehending these orders.
Shravan Bharadwaj, a 25-year-old youth from Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh is in Maharashtra’s Thane, and his condition is better than Ajay’s, but only marginally. “I used to go home only once in a year, but without any income, paying Rs 10,000 in rent is very difficult,” Shravan told Firstpost over the phone. When told that the government has instructed landlords not to ask for rent, Shravan says, “par baad mein dena toh padega. Kahan se layenge paisa? (but the money has to be eventually paid. Where will I get it from?)”. He, too, like Ajay, got numbers of nodal officers whose numbers were either defunct or just weren’t working. “No one has any information on how to go back or whom to ask for information.”
The Centre’s decision to finally allow stranded migrants was riddled not only with vagueness but also no clear information on any important issue – when will the process begin; which state department is in charge; where will you get additional information. The orders are lacking in details.
The government also overlooked the fact that a majority of the stranded labourers who are from the unorganised sector are either vulnerable or extremely vulnerable. They are too poor to afford a phone with an active internet connection. Most of the relief funds or measures announced by the Centre and some state governments include downloading an app and in some cases, downloading PDFs.
The West Bengal government’s initiative ‘Snehar Paras’ to transfer Rs 1,000 to stranded labourers required downloading the app on Google Play Store or from the West Bengal government website. The criteria to avail the cash were:
“Person has to be a resident of West Bengal and have documentary proof like Aadhar, Voter card or ration card; register a name with their mobile number – one scheme request per mobile number; a bank account in any bank; all details must be filled for successful application.”
Officials at the state government should perhaps have asked themselves how the vulnerable migrant could scan and upload his ID and bank account details on an app while sitting in the middle of nowhere during a nationwide lockdown. Several such initiatives were taken by the state governments of Odisha, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. The neediest, however, never got any money. Some were even unaware of these relief funds.
“Between 25 of us, only 10 have phones and we get the internet. But who will send us this news? Our family, living in villages, know nothing,” Ajay said and added that they get information when they speak to journalists or activists who are helping them on the ground.
Varun Agarwal, founder and lead at India Migration Now criticised the administration for widespread indifference towards migrant workers, especially the destination states. “It’s a constitutional right to work, the governments have to stop demonising labourers who travel miles for employment. The lockdown has shown us that the government needs to involve relevant stakeholders — civil society organisations, state governments, private players, village panchayats and even block pramukhs — to override this situation. Every crisis is an opportunity,” he said. Varun further added that the lack of a centralised mechanism makes disbursement of any relief fund impossible.
Criticising the Centre for poorly-targeted relief packages for the poor, Professor Srivastava said, “The Central government’s package, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna was poorly-targeted considering that the society’s most-severely impacted were those in the urban informal economy. This was even more the case with circular migrants who lost their incomes, and in many cases, their places of residence, with the lockdown. These circular migrants are not part of any social safety net and even the limited measures announced were not designed even to reach a small proportion of them. This has been brought clearly in the many reports that have come out since the lockdown.”
The Centre did issue a direction for ex-gratia payments to be made from the Construction Workers Welfare Board Funds. However, registration under these boards is problematic and does not cover the vast majority of inter-state migrants. “Subsequently, some states have announced small ex-gratia payments to migrant workers. Mostly these are source states. Telangana and Kerala are two destination states which have announced such payments. Delhi has announced limited support to specific sections. These have provided limited but inadequate support to a proportion of stranded migrant workers,” Srivastava said.
Migrant workers need cash income support to meet existing and past obligations, including the debt obligations from contractors. “These meagre transfers are not sufficient even when they do reach some migrants,” he said.
According to Srivastava, the Centre mishandled the situation by micro-managing it. He was specifically talking about the MHA’s order of allowing migrants to return. “Every part of this is bizarre. It’s impossible to micro-manage the situation, which is what the Centre has done. They have also put the entire onus of their return on the state governments and the poor migrant labourer. I read reports on how the labourer has to pay Rs 500 to return home. It’s inhuman, ironic and barbaric. Micro-managing it is the worst idea,” he said.
The former JNU professor, who has worked in the field for over 40 years now, asked what was stopping the Centre in running 10-15 special trains just for the migrants. “They arrange for these special trains during festivals and pilgrimage. Why can’t they do it now? The Centre should discuss financial responsibilities with states and Indian Railways and divide the expenses. The Centre basically enforced a lockdown and asked the states and the labourers to figure out their return. The Centre can mobilise NDMA and NDRF instead of leaving it to ordinary law enforcement officers who have no idea what they are doing,” said Srivastava adding that Centre’s lack of transparency is adding to the issues on the ground.
A point that everyone agreed on unanimously is that the current migration policy crisis is a wilful mess by the State over the decades since Independence. To remedy it requires funding and political will. Experts in civil society organisations said that the government should also incentivise working with various stakeholders to come up with innovative policy solutions for the crisis.
Migration is a means of empowerment, social emancipation and liberation, provided migration is an informed choice. But the migrant labour has no bargaining power and it will not change unless we see migration as a solution rather than a problem.
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Updated Date: May 04, 2020 19:10:05 IST