On an endless stretch of National Highway 58 (NH-58), a batch of over 200 migrant workers, arriving all the way from Ahmedabad are intercepted at the Rajasthan borders. The officials manning the borders, who are short-stocked on testing kits or thermal screening devices are insistent that the ‘returnees’ produce ‘Health Certificates’. The repeated claims of the migrants, including women and elderly, that they are natives of the state are insufficient to secure them safe passage back to their homes in South Rajasthan.
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Since the nation-wide lock down on March 24th, the reverse-migration of semi-skilled and unskilled workers ‘on foot’ — from cities back to their villages — have received wide attention. Poignant, heartbreaking images are all over the media and there are reports suggesting that as many as 22 workers have died while trying to get back home.
According to Aajeevika Bureau, a NGO working with migrant communities, about 4,000-5,000 migrants were documented attempting to walk over to their homes on the Ahmedabad- Rajasthan National Highway alone.
In fact, observers pointed out that the border check posts had very high chances of turning into transmission points since there was a lot of overcrowding. “We have not seen any quarantine facility or medical facility available at the interstate check-posts. So there is no clarity, how the government wants to resolve the matter with the migrants,” said Nivedita Jayaram from Aajeevika Bureau.
“Despite reaching out to the police and 104 helpline, the workers were denied assistance in many cases. The government’s abrupt decision has rendered the working-class and their families in the city helpless. Be it their transportation, health, livelihood, food. There is absolutely no co-ordination or a nodal agency to look into their struggles, in the wake of the lock-down,” she added.
The returnees — men, women, children, senior citizens, some even carrying their infants or younger children — have walked hundreds of kilometers hoping to get back home. “Most of them were eating bananas, biscuits and water. Even dhabas/hotels alongside the National Highway were shut by the authorities, so they were ill-equipped to provide for any refreshments to the people,” Nivedita said.
According to Ekta M, Co-founder of Bengaluru-based media and arts collective Maraa, and Angarika Guha, Programme Manager, the package of Rs 170 crore announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26th for daily wage and migrant workers can hardly ease their sufferings.
“The amount listed for women, widows and senior citizens is as abysmally low as Rs 500-1000. Further, the transfers will be made through existing government schemes, such as the Ujjwala scheme and for those registered under MNREGA. Transfers will be made via Jan Dhan accounts. This does not take into account the number of unregistered workers in the informal economy, whose lives are at risk, from a lot more than the coronavirus,” they wrote in a report titled “Premonitions from the workers of Bangalore”, compiled on the basis on telephonic interviews with powrakarmikas, Metro construction workers, garment industry workers and others employed in unorganised sectors in the city.
The report brought out the stark plight of such workers in the economy. As the Central and state governments intensified the battle against COVID-19, migrants say that they were forced to move out of the city due to the loss of their source of livelihood. With inter-state buses cancelled, and Indian Railways suspending operations till April 14th at the least, a long arduous march seemed the only way out.
“We don’t have shelter, water, salary. Hunger will kill us before the virus,” a migrant labourer from Bengaluru was quoted as saying in the Maraa report.
The unfurling human tragedy that has surfaced along with the pandemic in the country has exposed the stark realities of migration and the lack of a social safety net for the poor in the country, with or without COVID in the picture.
Driven by lack of employment, non-sustainable agricultural income, poor marginal labour from the villages move into the cities in search of a better life. Besides, many of their families are struggling to repay large debts, for which they have to earn, even if it means staying miles apart from their families, visiting them only occasionally.
However, the cost of living in the city coupled with their meagre, often uncertain, income barely leaves anything in their hands for a sudden emergency. “In fact, few use banking to remit money, usually those staying short distances away hand over the money to a bus-driver and hope their families will receive it,” Nivedita said.
Absence of social security
Lacking identity documents, most workers remain out of the coverage of the Public Distribution Schemes (PDS) in their city of employment. The MRP of rice, pulses and other staples at the regular shops are too expensive for them to afford, especially in times such as these, when whatever little income they had has dried up too. “The contractors, who ferried us to work in Bengaluru, said “no work, no money” and washed his hands-off,” said one labourer.
According to Aajeevika Bureau, neither the national Census nor NSSO captures the data of migrant labourers across the country. “Although, independent academic and interdisciplinary data have shown that 139 million of the population are ‘migrating workers’,” she said.
While most local economies would crumble without the presence of these interstate migrant workers, there are hardly any institutional bodies that look into the litany of problems they face. According to Himanshu Upadhyaya, Faculty at Bengaluru’s Azim Premji University, in most cases the migrant labourers are unaware of the Interstate Migrant Labour Act 1979. Their domicile state would have a district authority who should have the documentation that can be shared with the destination state – where people go to work. “However, the direction of migration is like a maze. Workers keep changing states, therefore it is difficult to track,” he said.
Social workers have on earlier occasions raised the need for states to institute migrant workers welfare boards, with a corpus fund for the welfare of this vulnerable section; these boards could strengthen interstate coordination and centres at both source and destination locations that would make it easy for workers to access government schemes..
Himanshu also added that boards like Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund, who give identity cards for construction labourers, must relax rules under the present extraordinary conditions. “Trade and Labour Unions have been demanding that instead of allowing benefits only to those who have annually renewed their membership, the benefits must reach all people who registered,” he said.
In the wake of the present crisis, Labour and Employment Minister Santhosh Kumar Gangwar has urged the Chief Minister of states and Union Territories to utilize the Rs. 52,000 crore lying unutilised in the building and other construction workers welfare cess fund.
Discrimination and ostracization
What the COVID-19 migration crisis has also brought under the spotlight is the rampant social discrimination based on caste and class that such workers face on a regular basis.
In Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh), it was reported that local cops humiliated and punished labourers who returned from Madhya Pradesh, by making them crawl and frog jump, for violating curfew orders. If that was not bad enough, another shocker emerged when a group of returning workers, with kids among them, were sprayed with disinfectant containing a solution of bleach!
Social media reacted with outrage and questions were raised as to whether any authority would have dared to replicate such action with upper class, affluent Indians who returned from foreign countries and were potential carriers of the virus.
According to Ekta M of Maraa, it was a most humiliating way for a worker to be treated. “The officials were just carrying forward the age-old legacy of ill-treatment that have been meted out to workers, who have no representation, no voice and it was a pure show of class discrimination. The officials acted remorselessly, and they must be convicted for taking away the dignity of the labourers,” she said.
Moreover, a few who reached their villages faced hostility even from their neighbourhood over the concern that they had carried the coronavirus from the cities and would now infect the villages. “There are a lot of cases, where we came to know that the migrant labourers were stigmatised due to certain prejudices. These are the places, where the local government is unable to reach with communication or clarity of COVID-19 related information,” Nivedita said.
Subsequent to the matter being reported in the media, the MHA issued an advisory to all States/UTs to make adequate arrangements for migrant workers to facilitate Social Distancing for COVID-19. This includes directions to various agencies, including NGOs, to provide free food grains, shelter with basic amenities like clean drinking water, sanitation through the public distribution system. “Also advise the vulnerable groups the measures taken by the Government. This would help prevent avoidable movement of such people,” the advisory stated.
But despite the reactive measures that have been taken now, the struggle of many continue unabated, creating ample reason for the nation to introspect on how the system treats workers in the informal economy. In the end, it is not just about COVID-19 alone.