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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Where are India’s migrant workers supposed to go?

Left between a rock and a hard place, where are India’s migrant workers supposed to go? With no means to reach their hometowns amid the COVID-19 lockdown and no wage, this section is the worst hit and have no place to go.

The effect of the stringent countrywide lockdown on daily wage, migrant workers has been catastrophic in the short term already and as time passes, we are yet to learn further about the long-term effects it will have on them and in turn on our economy. Industry shutdown across the country has rendered workers unemployed and they only wished to go back to their hometowns. However, the sudden announcement of the lockdown in March denied these workers particularly the opportunity to collect their wages or even make arrangements for leaving the cities they work in. During the COVID-19 crisis, transportation facilities have also been at a complete halt as a result of which migrants are now trapped in destination cities with scarce resources to tide over the situation. They do not have the ability to pay rent, maintain physical distances, eat two square meals a day, or earn a livelihood since they typically live in cramped up spaces that they share with several others. These households currently face the risk of hunger, poor or no access to hygiene and consequent and concerning health issues.


Did the government’s stimulus package reach them?

India rolled out a Rs 1.7 trillion relief package at the end of March, amounting to about one per cent of its gross domestic product, attempting to limit the economic damage caused by the Coronavirus crisis and tackle the loss of livelihood of millions of poor workers hit by an unprecedented and strict nationwide shutdown. The stimulus package, under the aegis of the newly framed Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana, aims to counter and find a solution to the financial pain faced by migrant workers, farmers, urban and rural poor and women. As part of the COVID-19 lockdown to counter the spread of the deadly virus, the central government stopped public transport, airlines and construction work, bringing to a grinding halt most economic activities. This left millions of workers in the informal economy without a livelihood. “We don’t want anyone to remain hungry. We will take care of the protein requirements of the poor and give money in their hands through direct benefit transfer,” finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said. However, we do not know if the transfer was made in reality or not.

In the first week of April, the Central Government announced that over 32 crore poor people received Rs 29,352 crore financial assistance under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana which had been earlier announced by the finance minister. The government also announced several measures to provide relief to the needy amid the COVID-19 lockdown. As part of the Rs 1.70 lakh crore relief package, the government said it would distribute free food grains among poor people. They claimed that cash benefits were already offered to women and poor senior citizens, farmers to mitigate their hardships of earning a meagre livelihood amid lockdown. “Under #PradhanMantriGaribKalyanPackage, announced by Finance Minister Smt @nsitharaman on 26.03.2020, more than 32cr poor people received financial assistance of ₹29,352 cr as on 13.04.2020,” Finance Ministry had tweeted on April 14.

A Jan Sahas survey report on the impact of the lockdown on migrant workers, however, pointed out that 55% of the workers they had reached out to through their survey, reported that they earned between Rs 200- Rs 400 per day to support an average family size of four persons. A high amount of 42% of the workers stated that they had no ration left even for a day, let alone for the duration of the nationwide lockdown. While 33% of the respondents the Jan Sahas team interviewed said they were still stuck in destination cities due to the lockdown with poor or no access to food, water and money. “A staggering 94% of the workers do not have the Building and Construction Workers identity card, which rules out the possibility of availing any of the benefits that the State has declared from its Rs 32,000 crore financial assistance,” it said. The report also highlighted the structural flaws in the beneficiary identification systems that they expected will probably going to get in the way of the subsidy and relief reaching the migrant workers on the ground.
So, we cannot assume or do not exactly know if the stimulus package reached the labourers or not — it remains a pertinent question.

migrant workers
Train at a track with passengers on board (Photo: shutterstock.com/explorewithinfo)

The Aurangabad accident: How many migrant workers actually died amid lockdown?

In a heart-wrenching incident, sixteen migrant labourers, who were trying to return to their homes in the state of Madhya Pradesh on foot, were killed on May 8, when a goods train ran over them between Jalna and Aurangabad districts, according to several reports. One worker was reported to have been seriously injured, while three also escaped. According to the Aurangabad police authorities and railway officials at the Nanded division of the South Central Railway (SCR), 14 of them were apparently killed on the spot, while two succumbed to their injuries on way to the hospital.

All of these workers were aged between 20 and 30 and hailed from Umaria and Shahdol districts. They were said to have been working at a steel firm in the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) zone in Jalna district.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tweeted, “Extremely anguished by the loss of lives due to the rail accident in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Have spoken to Railway Minister Shri Piyush Goyal and he is closely monitoring the situation. All possible assistance required is being provided.” Railway Minister Piyush Goyal had also said that relief operations were on and that he had ordered an inquiry into the accident. BJP leader and Jalna MP Raosaheb Danve said he was trying to determine as to what compelled the labourers to begin walking to their hometowns despite the Maharashtra government having started transport of labourers via the Shramik Special trains. “I cannot comment on the incident except to say it is deeply disturbing. I am on my way to Jalna to find out whether or not the labourers were being given adequate food during the lockdown period. I know of companies that have housed and fed their migrant workers,” he had told a vernacular news channel. The incident brought to the forefront the plight of the migrant workers while only trying to return to their hometowns.

A staggering number of 378 people died since the lockdown owing to reasons other than contracting the Coronavirus. A research published on The Wire claimed that 69 people out of the total died in rail or road accidents while walking to their homes. Gathering information from numerous news reports, the database put together by the group of researchers that describes itself as “freelance scholars and student volunteers interested in action-oriented research, socio-economic rights and related issues”, showed that a large number of people died due to other factors like starvation, no wage, and more since the lockdown was imposed.

The larger concern to save their lives, provide them with food and minimum wages still continue to linger. If not home, where will they go?

Note: United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that she was concerned and disheartened by the plight of the informal migrant workers affected by the COVID-19 lockdown, many of whom were, in a matter of a few hours’ notice, forced to leave the cities where they worked, unable to pay for rent or obtain food for themselves and their families. “The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked,” said Bachelet. As she also welcomed strict measures to counter the Coronavirus outbreak, she noted the importance of ensuring that these regulations responding to the pandemic are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.”

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