Why Shramik trains and other promises have brought little cheer to Mumbai’s migrant workers

Mumbai has an estimated 3 million migrant workers. Even if the railways ferry about 2400 people in two trains per day, it will take a couple of months to transport them back home.

The government may have finally opened up movement for stranded migrant workers after a gap of 40 days, but their problems are far from over. In fact, a new set of ordeals seems to await the migrant, most of them daily wagers, as they are now forced to queue up in front of police stations in the quest for travel permits, after spending weeks in queues for food and rations.  Despite the central directive, uncertainty reigns supreme over the facilitation of their travel back home. 

The first thing that 31-year-old Anwar Hussain and his eight colleagues, all daily wage labourers and staying in a 10X15 sq ft rented house in Worli, wanted to do when the lockdown was eased, was to go back home, as they had no food and source of income here in Mumbai. As travel was opened up for migrants, Hussain excitedly went to the local police station only to be insulted and shooed away by them. Being stuck in a containment zone does disqualify Hussain from stepping out, a fact that troubles him. This, even as he is running out of money and support and as he keeps hearing about colleagues in other localities managing to get travel forms. 

Getting one isn’t easy though, from a containment zone or otherwiseHashirul Malik, 30 put up at Diva and stuck with 17 people (all from Beldanga village in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district) had to stand in a queue for six hours from 5 pm to 11 pm in a police station just to get travel permission requisition form. The next day he had to visit the police station to get himself checked by a visiting doctor to avail a medical certificate, citing that he did not show Coronavirus symptoms. He was lucky as many are struggling to find doctors to get certificates. 

Malik knows that he will have to return to working in other people’s agricultural fields once he gets back, which will fetch him far less than what he earned as a construction worker here in Mumbai. “I will have to find some other work in some other place later, but for now, I want to just get back home, away from the uncertainity here,” says Malik. 

Three Shramik (migrant special) trains have left for Uttar Pradesh from Maharashtra since May 2nd; two trains left from Nashik and Bhiwandi to Lucknow and Gorakhpur respectively. Sunday saw another two trains leave from Bhiwandi and Vasai towards Gorakhpur. Each train carries an average of about 1200 passengers and labourers had to shell out about Rs 800 each towards the ticket fare. The labourers were so desperate to travel that they landed at the Bhiwandi station as soon as the police announced that a train had been arranged and stayed put till the train left the station around midnight. 

Government apathy

The Mumbai police is believed to have received 15,000 travel applications across its 94 police stations on May 2nd itself. The task ahead is mammoth. “Mumbai has an estimated 3 million migrant workers. Assuming the railways ferry about 2400 people per day (in two trains  per day at 1200 people in each), it should take a couple of months to transport them back home. Many migrants will be left behind here and will continue to be dependent for food supplies. Do we have the political will to support them to survive with food, water, sanitation and rent support for that long?” says Sitaram Shelar, director for Center for Promoting Democracy (CPD). 

Shelar, along with other organisations moved the Bombay High Court in March, demanding that the state provide food, water, sanitation, health and shelter faciltiies to migrants stuck in the city, since he found the administration tending to shirk responsibility and their attitude deliberately apathetic. “The migrant issue is far from resolved due to false government assumptions — one, that all migrants want to go back home, and secondly, that all migrants will return once train services resume. There is no cognizance of the 28% intrastate migrants from rural to urban Maharashtra,” says Shelar.

Shelar, also convenor of the Pani Haq Samiti, accuses the government of lack of political will and intent to help the migrants. “If the government really wants to help the people, they can genuinely reach out to them, but they are just going about it halfheartedly. 

The government too seems to be aware of the mammoth task at hand and hence is encouraging people to hire their own road transport. Migrants are being asked to hire four wheelers or buses to travel back home. On May 1st, Nitin Kareer, additional chief secretary and IAS officer in charge of migrant labourers and stranded people was quoted by Mumbai Mirror as saying that the state could not afford to strain its finances and if trains were not plying, those stranded would have to figure out their own private transport or home states would have to bear the cost.

Later, however, state transport minister Anil Parab clarified the procedure for migrant workers to go home. However, the police permission form on covid19.mhpolice.in, has a separate provision to let the migrant choose other vehicular transport, seeking details like vehicle number, model and even the driver’s name and licence number.

“Trains are the cheapest travel option back home. Hiring a vehicle to Uttar Pradesh would cost about Rs 40,000 to 50,000. Can people stuck without work for over 40 days afford it? Since the first phase of lockdown, we had been demanding that labourers be allowed to travel back home. Had that happened, things would not have turned so bad,” says Brijesh Arya, convenor of Homeless Collective, a co-petitioner in the writ petition. Arya alleges that there is large scale apathy towards the marginalised that fails to register the true nature of the problem on ground. 

A deep disconnect

“The government has been caught completely off guard about the migrant population because they fail to look at the real picture. As per government records, there are just about 12,000 homeless people in Mumbai and the Census registered only about 57,450 homeless, though we know that there are a few lakhs of them on the streets. It’s only when a crisis like this one hits, that they are left scrambling trying to figure out things on the ground,” says Arya.   

“Migrants are bearing the worst brunt of the lockdown as unlike the local urban poor, they have no local identity or political clout and thus no stake or say in local issues. Hence, they are that much more invisible and vulnerable. I have seen poor labourers being beaten up while carrying milk packets and grocery supplies. Does the government expect food supplies to fall from the sky for people?” asks Bilal Khan, convenor of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, who is closely working with migrants.

A telephonic survey with 3196 migrant workers between March 27-29, by Jan Sahas, a NGO that works for welfare of workers, found that 92.5% of labourers had lost their source of income in the lockdown. The survey Voices of the Invisible Citizens found 42% workers did not have rations of even a day left with them and 31% of them already had debts to pay.

Hollow promises

The plethora of relief measures promised by the governments, both state and Central, have clearly failed to cut ice with migrants who want to go back. Activists cite that most welfare measures are lackadaisical — meant more for show, rather than actual relief. The trust deficit on the part of the workers seems justified, if one looks at the fine print and the way these promises have played out actually on the ground. 

Consider these examples: The announcement of free rations for three months proved to be a damp squib in April due to a ruptured supply chain and lack of stocks in many ration shops. Besides, “they provide free rations to card holders only if the families purchase their allocated quota of grains beforehand. The promise of three free cylinders, too, is not relevant since it is applicable only to those registered under the Pradhan Mantri Ujwala Yojana, which is not the case in many cases in Mumbai,” says Bilal Khan  of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao. 

Similarly, the government announcement of cash aid of Rs 2000 to construction workers does not count much, as very few workers (18,75,510 workers in all of Maharashtra till March 2019) are registered with The Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (BOCW). 

The  report by Jan Sahas highlights how a Rs 52,000-crore cess fund corpus collected by the Labour Welfare Boards under the BOCW Cess Act, and directed to be used for direct cash transfers to the accounts of construction labourers, was also of little help. There are 3.5 crore labourers reportedly registered with all the states and only Rs 31,000 crore of the total Rs 52,000 could be utilised for cash transfers, as the rest of the fund had already been earmarked for various other works by the respective states. Besides, the transfer of funds under BOCW Board turned out to be a central government directive (more of an advisory) rather than a mandatory order, and hence had limited impact.

Also, 94% of workers nationwide were ineligible to receive this relief as they were not registered with the Builders and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Board, a mandatory provision. 

The state in turn came up with its own directives that seemed more like wishful thinking: asking landlords to waive rent payments from their tenants for three months or employers/contractors to pay full salaries to all those working under them. This, even as the state government itself slashed salaries of state employees and even chose to pay March salary in two installments, citing lack of revenue. 

While the state asked the non-essential industries to shut shop, the pet project of the current dispensation, the Mumbai Coastal Project, had wares imported and work continued on the Arabian coastline with bus loads of workers working day and night around quarantined buildings. So did the state’s 45 sugar factories, many of which are owned or controlled by politicians.The migrant workers clearly aren’t blind to such realities and not surprisingly, do not trust the government. It is this very lack of faith in the government and its intent to help that is driving people to embark on walking journeys over hundreds of kilometres or travel inside trucks and cement mixers with the singular aim of getting back to the warmth and security of their homes.

The economic hit

According to a study conducted by professors at IIT Bombay, the estimated loss of income to marginal workers was Rs 58,000 crore, or 0.41 % of the GDP, in the first three weeks of the lockdown till April 14th. If the lockdown were to continue for two months, then the impact could rise to Rs 1.65 lakh crores or 1.18 % of the GDP. 

Real estate sector in India is the second largest employment generator in India for minimally skilled workers (almost 80% of workforce in that sector), engaging about 55 million people across India and contributing 9% of GDP, next only to agriculture. It is instrumental in employing large masses of migratory populations that come to the metropolitan cities in search of work. Anarock Property Consultants estimates that three lakh workers have already been laid off in the sector due to economic slowdown and expects further job cuts post lockdown.   

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic is rewriting the rules of migration and labour across the globe, poor urban migrant labourers in Mumbai and other cities yearn for the security, assurance and comfort of their homes. Under the circumstances, it becomes the state’s responsibility to ensure safe and smooth transit for such poor. But beyond directives on paper, not much seems to be working on that front.

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