The Distress of Migrants… and Their Dignity

Since the sudden announcement of the country-wide lockdown on 24th March, little has been done so far to provide relief to the migrants. The “Atmanirbhar Bharath” package fails to meet the expectations of migrant workers on multiple fronts.

Shantanu Maheshwari | May 27, 2020

The distress of migrants…and their dignity

  The Hindu

Migrant workers, who until now were invisible to the state and the affluent in India, are receiving a lot of attention. Most of us are aware of the plight of migrant workers since the sudden announcement of the country-wide lockdown on 24th March. Despite the workers’ contribution to the economy of cities and through remittances back to their villages, little has been done so far to provide them relief during this time of deep crises.

The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has been receiving distress calls from workers since the lockdown was announced. As our interactions with the workers have shown, the precarious conditions have only worsened with workers losing their jobs, being evicted from their homes as they were unable to pay rent, and left with no alternative are now struggling to find their way back home by train, by bus…and even on foot.

Meanwhile, the “Atmanirbhar Bharath” economic package, announced by the Finance Minister (FM) to combat the economic consequences of the lockdown, fails to meet the expectations of migrant workers on multiple fronts. It is yet another incomplete and incompetent measure similar to previous relief measures like depositing a measly Rs. 500/- in Jan-Dhan accounts and not enforcing orders on the payment salaries to workers by employers during the lockdown period. The latest package offers an additional Rs. 40,000 crores to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), and a stated increase in average wage rate from Rs. 182 to Rs. 202. In fact, the wage rate increase was a regular adjustment against inflation which is made every year. This cannot be called an “additional resource” as the FM mentioned and even now the Central government has not adhered to the Constitutional provision of minimum wages for MGNREGA.

The other scheme of Rs. 3,500 crores to provide free ration for 2 months and a promise of 100% portability of ration cards by 2021 has no meaning unless they are implemented on the ground. Even during the lockdown there were orders existing allowing for inter-state portability of ration cards; but this counted for little in securing access to food grains for migrants. SWAN has recorded cases where workers were denied ration under the PDS scheme as they did not have a ration card with the local address. Also no guidelines have been issued regarding how the scheme for free ration would be implemented. Given the magnitude of the crisis, and the extreme distress migrants are in, this relief package is too little and too late.

Few actions need to be taken by the government to provide immediate relief to workers. The first is to provide emergency cash relief of Rs 7000/- per month for 2 months to all households of migrants and poor. The cash in hand will not only provide immediate relief to workers but help stimulate the economy too. Second, is enabling the resumption of work and economic activities in cities with proper safeguards, and not diluting or suspending labour laws that states and the Centre are considering under pressure from powerful business and builder lobbies. Third, along with MGNREGA, the government should consider the implementation of an urban employment guarantee scheme to boost employment and economic activity in towns and cities. This will provide livelihoods to those who have been unable to leave and enable them to earn an income. At present Kerala has the pre-existing Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, and Odisha has launched an Urban Wage Employment Initiative to help informal workers who were laid off during the lockdown or are earning less due to reduced hours of work.

In addition to the above, the Centre and state governments must coordinate to facilitate the travel for workers so that those who wish to can go back to their village and to their families, safely and in a dignified manner. Current steps taken by the government are highly insufficient.  At present, workers are in such a desperate situation due to the absence of any work, food and money that they have started walking thousands of kilometres despite knowing all the risks involved. The reason for this exodus by foot from cities is the uncertainty around travel aggravated by the lack of information on train schedules, multiple registrations on different websites as well as offline, and filling of complicated forms.  Resolution of crisis of this magnitude require proper coordination and communication between the states and the Central government. For workers wanting to return home, no appropriate information is being provided regarding the travel options and other relief measures. Even when they have registered for travel by train, no information is provided regarding when their turn will come. In some cases, no provision was there to travel to the railway station from where the train is departing if workers were stranded in some other city other than state capital. Those who did manage to secure a ticket on a train have had to pay exorbitant fares.

In the end, I would like to mention a conversation with a migrant worker, which to me summarises the crisis. Last week, we received a distress call from a worker who used to work on a construction site in Bengaluru, but since the lockdown had no money and food. He asked us for help to cover expenses during the journey, which he would like to commence next day to his native state Jharkhand with a few others. He mentioned that they had decided to walk as there was no clear information regarding when they can go and anyway they did not have anything to eat where they were now. I tried to convince them to stay and promised to provide ration so that they can sustain till their turn for travel by train came. I mentioned the consequences of walking such a long distance and somehow managed to convince them that staying in Bengaluru and waiting for a train is the best option for them. Reassured, one of them said, “Thank you for just talking to us to make us understand and evaluate all the options. Until now, no one was even explaining the whole situation to us. Just a simple chat regarding what to do and what not was of great help and we will definitely follow that advice.” What this worker was asking for was to be given information, simply to be heard out and to be treated with dignity—something the state and society seem to have forgotten.

Shantanu Maheshwari is a volunteer with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). The article was written with inputs from Seema Mundoli faculty at Azim Premji University who also volunteers with SWAN.