From last Thursday [7th May] what is said to be human history’s biggest evacuation called “Vande Bharat Mission” using our national carrier Air India started. For Indians stranded for long in many countries the mission initially will operate a total of 64 flights to a dozen countries. The story of the migrant workers in India however has been different. The morning after the first two Air India flights landed on Thursday, we woke up to two tragic stories striking the migrant labour in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. 16 migrant workers who were in the Aurangabad district going home to Shahdol division and Umaira district in MP were crushed to death by a speeding goods train. They were part of a group of 20 walking from Jalna to Bhusaval, hoping to board the Shramik Express Passenger train from there. On the way, exhausted they fell asleep on the tracks between Badnapur and Karmad stations in Nanded Division when the tragedy struck at 5.15am. The picture of the dry ‘rotis’ they were carrying strewn on the tacks was disturbing.
Few hours earlier that day a migrant labour family of four from Bemetara district in Chhattisgarh working in Lucknow ventured to cover the 756 km to their village on cycle. At 1.30 am the cycle borne couple and their two children, both below five, were knocked down by a speeding vehicle. While the children escaped, the couple later died in a hospital where they were admitted by the Lucknow police. A group of eight migrant workers of Delhi ventured to go on their cycles on 5th May to their homes in East Champaran in Bihar, a 1000 kms away. Last Saturday at around 10am, one of them was killed by a car in Lucknow. On Monday [10th March] six workers on their way home in Uttar Pradesh were killed and 12 others were injured when a truck overturned near Petham village in Narsinghpur district of Madhya Pradesh. Television channels showed 17 workers jam-packed in a small tempo travelling from Mumbai to UP in the scorching heat. Looking at the miserable exodus from the cities to their far-away villages I was reminded of John Steinbeck’s novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ vividly portraying the hardships and oppression suffered by the migrant labourers during the Great Depression [1929-1941] in the United States- their long journey from Dust Bowl Oklahoma in search of work.
The above- mentioned instances of loss of precious lives of our migrant labourers are not isolated cases. Media carried plenty of such deaths of migrant labourers escaping from the cities following the coronavirus lockdown. With no income, many of them were starving in the cities. What one such worker commented about staying back in the cities describes their predicament; “either hunger or corona will kill us”. That is why they were desperate to leave the cities for their homes at any cost, undertaking arduous journeys. The lockdown was announced for obvious reasons with hardly any notice and all public transport came to a grinding halt for over a month. The workers were also stopped from leaving the cities; some of them assaulted by police and sent to detention camps. A number of them, however cycled, walked or hitch-hiked; 18 of them in a mixer tank of a concrete mixer truck were pulled out by police in Indore!
The announcement about introduction of Shramik Express Passenger trains on 1st May for the workers to go home provided some succour to the hapless workers. There were avoidable unnecessary controversies as to who would pay for their rail journeys. The government claimed that the journeys were subsidized by 85% and made the workers pay complete fares. There are also reports of middlemen overcharging the workers. The Karnataka government last Tuesday cancelled the Shramik Express Passenger train from Bengaluru justifying that it had decided to stop the trains as the departure of migrant workers would hamper development activities! They also said that the decision was taken after discussions with builders! After all round condemnation the decision was rescinded two days later. Is it not interesting that the special trains for the migrant workers to go home introduced by the central government on May Day were stopped by the state government? In Goa, a cabinet minister had appealed to the 70,000 strong migrant workers not to leave in the interests of the state. Yesterday Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made a fervent appeal to the migrant workers. ”It feels like that the entire system has failed, governments have failed. I want to make an appeal to all migrant workers stranded in Delhi, we are making all arrangements for you….please do not leave Delhi”. A course correction is needed in all the states which depend on migrant workers, and need to treat millions of migrant workers, who are the backbone of development activities, with care giving them suitable accommodation, legitimate wages and protecting their rights.
I had a long discussion, last Sunday with Prof. Sanjai Bhatt of the Department of Social Work, Delhi University, President, National Association of Professional Social Workers in India [NAPSWI], President, [South Asia] International Council on Social Welfare and Alliance Ambassador, Global Social Service Workforce Alliance [ GSSWA ]. Prof. Bhatt said, “We are a highly legislated country, but I think there is no proper implementation of over a dozen laws pertaining to different facets of labour welfare, like payment of wages, minimum wages, conditions of work, social security, industrial relations labour, especially migrant labour etc.” He pointed out the antiquity of labour laws in India. Workmen’s Compensation Act is probably the oldest dating back to 1923. A number of Acts like Industrial Establishments Act and Payment of Wages Act, 1936 were already in vogue before we became free in 1947. The Minimum Wages Act and a few others like the Factories Act and Employees State Insurance Act came into existence in 1948. The list is quite exhaustive.
“I would say”, Prof Bhat said, “almost 93% of our workforce are migrant labour and an overwhelming majority of them are in the unorganized sector; one of the relevant legislations is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen’s [Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service ] Act,1979 which is almost ineffective.” As far as migrant workers are concerned, in reality there is hardly any protection for them. Look at what is happening after the coronavirus struck us. Millions of them as mentioned earlier are the worst hit- they lost their jobs and income; had to leave their rented accommodation in slum clusters; trapped in the cities with no means of returning home, living like prisoners in detention centres with food given by the government or charitable civil society organizations. Their plight is like nobody’s children- children of a lesser god!
Prof. Bhat pointed out the poor implementation and lacunae in many of these laws which are constitutionally mandated to protect their rights and ensure their welfare. Migrant workers are brought by contractors from villages in states like Bihar, UP, West Bengal or Odisha. Had the provisions of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 been strictly implemented by the concerned authorities, the untold miseries of the migrant workers after the nation-wide lockdown would have been mitigated. According to the Act there is a need for the hiring establishments who are required to be registered and contractors to be licensed. The migrant workers are to be paid wages like other workers and are also to be paid various allowances including for their travel to the place of work and back to their villages. Suitable accommodation is to be provided and medical expenses are also required to be paid to the migrant workers. But the ground reality is that both the employers and the contractors exploit the migrant labourers by abdicating their responsibility of following the provisions of the Act. Prof. Bhat says that all inter-state migrant workers need to be registered by the government by issuing a card like Aadhaar, which would also facilitate their inter-state migration from one state to the other using the same card. The other suggestion is regarding the workers migrating to cities leaving behind the families to provide for them. All the compensations and welfare measures are meant only for the individual workers. So their families back home also need to be brought under the provisions of all the benefits. There is also a requirement for establishing a Social Security Fund to ensure minimum social Security and decent work as advocated by the International Labour Organization.
There are plenty of Acts like the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act,2008 or the Pradhan Mantri ShramYogi Maandhan Yojana, a contributory pension scheme for unorganized workers. According to my friend Suneel Vatsyayan its enrollment is 43,87,759. Where are the millions of migrant workers? he asks. That shows social workers and government agencies are not making the workers aware and motivate them to join such schemes.
And finally, migrant labour should be acknowledged as an important element in our development programmes and be treated with empathy, dignity and respect as useful and productive citizens!