A Painful Tale of Indian Labour Migrants - Seeker's Thoughts

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A Painful Tale of Indian Labour Migrants

After the nationwide lockdown to arrest the spread of COVID-19 was announced, distressing images of countless migrant workers across India setting out to trudge thousands of kilometers to their hometowns started doing the rounds. 

The workers, who had traveled to cities in search of work and livelihood, suddenly found themselves unable to sustain themselves as the nation shuts down around them. Men with backpacks, women, and bundles on their heads, children, and the elderly in arms, or in tow, they inched towards the only certainty they knew home.

The exodus continued throughout April and as well as in May. 

Special train services to get migrant workers home were finally started on May 1. On May 12, having run special, ferrying over 500,000 migrants, the Indian railways stepped up the pace from an average 42 trains a day to a 100 daily.

Other migrants with some resources, like their own rickshaws, hired cars or second-hand bikes bought hurriedly made their own way home, taking circuitous routes around check posts to dodge the authorities, hoping to escape the rush on trains.

Some even taking dangerous steps in their desperation to reach home. On May 2, 18 migrant workers found hiding inside a concrete mixer on a highway in Madhya Pradesh.

25 migrant workers were killed and several injured on 16th May. When a trailer truck they were traveling in rammed into supply lorry near Auraiya in Uttar Pradesh.

16 migrants died after being run over by a goods train near Aurangabad, some unable to face the harsh reality of life with no income, committed suicide, as a result what was a public health crisis swiftly became a humanitarian one.

Heart-wrenching images and videos are getting viral on social media. These migrants are helpless. 

In a long walk back home, migrants battle hunger scourge of Covid-19. They are eating grass some are fighting for a packet of biscuits. There is no fear of being infected from corona virus but dying from hunger among these migrants.

International travelers were given weeks of advance notice, internal migrants workers were given only four hours before being confined to their worksites, cramped rooms, and open space settlements. 

Providing additional notice could not have minimized the catastrophe since there is no way to predicts how many migrants’ workers would have successfully been able to travel in the notice period.

Government’s miss management and failures

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made no mention of the migrant exodus in his televised address to the nation on May 12, his fifth since the Covid outbreak.

Narendra Modi announced his Rs-20 –lakh- crores COVID19 package.

Migrants expected relief when PM announced 20 lakh crores package

Day 1 of the series if policy announcement provided no hope the informal sector is also wondering what comes next. There is no mention of the poor who is in hunger and pain. No mention of poor migrants in the package.

Half the money of the PM’s Rs 20 lakh crores relief package has already been spent without much impact. The common man and the poor workers saw no relief.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made announcements adding to Rs 4.4 lakh crores but they were mainly credit guarantee schemes for MSMEs (Rs 3 lakh crores) and the power sector (Rs 90,000 crores) and reduction of TDS rates by 25% (Rs 50,000 crores). 4.4 Lakh crores for MSMEs and the power sector.

The government revised its market borrowings cap from Rs 7.8 lakh crores to Rs 12 lakh crores earlier this month, which would provide them with an additional Rs 4.2 lakh crores. The government is running short on fiscal space.

It would be important to mention that the stress on the government’s finances is not just caused by the present COVID crisis, it has been accentuated by this crisis. Signs of trouble were visible in 2019-20, as gross tax revenues saw a contraction of almost 1% from April 2019 to February 2020.
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 The government had already failed on the economic front long before Covid-19

The fiscal space is limited for a government that has failed to provide free rail travel to millions of migrant workers who were forced to walk hundreds of kilometers.

Migrants are still forced to walk hundreds of kilometers. The first round of Prime Minister’s Rs 20 lakh crores package has nothing for the poor Plight of poor remains distressed

States like Kerala, Telangana and Delhi have handled the crisis by providing rations via temporary ration cards and direct cash disbursements. Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha, too, provided direct cash transfers, but with a few caveats, workers must have their accounts registered with a bank from their home state, for example. As a result, many workers reported not receiving assistance at all.

The internal migrant crisis is being handled poorly. Migrant workmen and women have been deprived of their dignity,” says Varun Aggarwal, founder, India Migration Now, a migration research policy and advocacy organisation. “The government is apathetic and has a poor understanding of migration itself. Mass inter-state return migration was always going to be an infection risk. Italy and China were parables for that.”

None of the states had an idea of the sheer number of migrants travelling for work. “With no prior preparation, implementation of any relief measures to guarantee even the bare minimum sustenance was bound to fail. Moreover, even if orders were made at the state level, implementation by local authorities was arbitrary. Some nodal officers [appointed to facilitate movement of migrant workers] refused to receive calls and relied on scattered efforts by NGOs, abdicating all responsibility,”

The present plight of the migrants is the culmination of the failure of the central and state governments to draw up a holistic policy safeguarding the interests of migrants. The official apathy is due to the lack of interstate arrangements and allowing employers and labour contractors to make informal arrangements. India’s informal economy also witnesses wage thefts every year worth crores of rupees, particularly from workers in construction, small manufacturing, head loading and other activities with no formalized terms of employment. Even under ordinary circumstances, neither labour departments nor the police is equipped to deal with cases involving informal labour.

State governments and urban local bodies in particular, did not pre-empt the large volume of labour violation cases during the lockdown. Ideally, redressed mechanisms should have been set up at the ward and block levels, so that workers could have been paid their dues for earlier months.

Under such circumstances, the early return of migrant labour after the lockdown is eased or lifted remains uncertain. “Mobility, once their strength, is now a weakness. They will no longer want to move as far as they did even though they need the money badly, “They might continue to do jobs they view as dirty, dangerous and demeaning outside their native states, albeit under better terms, but there will be a decline in the flow to metros and cities.” Bihar is conducting a skill survey of the returning migrants and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has spoken about providing them permanent employment at home.

The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) Fund has allocated Rs 1,000 crores for migrant workers and said that each state will get a minimum of 10 percent of the sum allocated, with the additional grant to be decided on the basis of a state’s population (50 percent weightage) and the number of COVID cases (40 percent weightage) it has. Experts, however, argue that funds will be spread too thin and are unlikely to make a difference unless the states pitch in with much more than what they get from the Centre.

Zero accountability

According to the Economic Survey, 2016-17, India’s interstate migration doubled between 2001 and 2011 compared to the previous decade, growing 4.5 per cent a year. Annual interstate migration is now estimated to be at nine million migrants a year. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s report, ‘Migration and its impact on cities’, in 2017, ‘Internal migration flows in India are driven by the state’s important economic inequities.’ 

A new methodology, the Cohort-based Migration Metric, reveals that less affluent states like Bihar and UP see more out-migration, while more affluent ones like Delhi, Maharashtra, and Goa see in-migration.

The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, is inadequate as it recognises only those in the contractor system, excluding workers who migrate on their own. In fact, according to the law, the central government may be legally required to ensure free travel home during the lockdown since it is arguably responsible for the termination of work. “Migrants are the only group of people who have been included in India’s concurrent list.

As long as accountability and power remain ambiguously distributed between the Centre and states, there will be confusion. Without clear accountability, advance planning, arrangements for their welfare can’t be made.

The registration measures under the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act could have been operationalized through proper incentives for contractors and their paymasters. “The proposed labour code, now before Parliament, when enacted, will protect the basic rights of the migrants,” declared finance minister in her May 14 briefing.

What will be the emerging post-COVID scenario?

New migration networks and corridors will form. And the push for a ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme should come through urgently,” A History of Migration. “The time for discussion on portability of social security is over; it simply needs to happen.” If the concerns of the stranded and returning migrants are not addressed, they may hesitate to return to the cities when normalcy returns, triggering scarcity of labour and long-term negative effects on the urban economy and economic growth. With migrants, invisible till now, in the limelight, their welfare, healthcare, housing, and education for their children are likely to emerge as pre-conditions for any jobs they take up.

 Both the sending and receiving states of migrants may have to reach a memorandum of understanding to protect their people. The role of the central government is limited as it is not a beneficiary, but, experts say, it can play the role of a watchdog. Only then, they may have a brighter and better 2021. 

Facts and Figures

The Constitution of India (Article 19) gives the right to all citizens “to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.

As per Census 2011, 45 million Indians moved outside their district of birth for economic opportunities (be it employment or business).

In India, internal migration (fuelled by an increasing rate of urbanization and rural-urban wage difference) is far greater than an external migration.
India's urban population is expected to grow from 410 million in 2014 to 814 million by 2050.

Instead of long term migration, there is a huge flow of short term migrants in the country.

Way forward

There is a public perception that public funds are only for the “legitimate residents” of an area. The political class engaged in narrow ‘vote bank” politics also tend to overlook the genuine concern of migrants. 

These issues have to be tackled through long term awareness campaigns. 

Literacy campaigns specifically targeting the migrant population also need to be implemented. The “Changathi” campaign by the Kerala government can be used as a model. 

Every major city has to start a specific budget just for the development of the migrant population. The central government also has to look at distress migration as a disaster-related issue and allocate necessary funds for the same. 

A smart city campaign needs to address the issue of large scale affordable and safe housing for migrants. 

Law enforcement agencies need to sensitize to the special needs of this vulnerable section. They also need to evolve special strategies to curb hate speech in social media.

What more needs to be done?

Reach interstate agreements to ensure employers provide workers better living and working conditions, including health insurance and education for their families. Set up a ministry for migrant’s welfare and adequate authority to help domestic migrants effectively as a single point of contact.

Employing migrant workers, which the states much implement effectively by relying on local bodies that can reach out to high migrant’s areas. Universalized Public distribution system even during normal times, so migrants do not have to rely on expensive private providers, where they often spend over 50% of their incomes.

Undertake enumeration of migration settlements and high migration areas in cities, recognise them as legitimate urban citizens and accommodate their numbers in the planning of crucial urban programmes.

Announce immediate relief packages for small enterprises invest in rural economies through schemes and other programmes to ensure migration is safe and secure rather than a result of distress. Minimize out-migration by developing rural growth clusters and bridge the urban-rural divide.

Millions of children and their families across India continue to face hunger and inadequate nutrition caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2-hour special #HungerFreeIndia Telethon by NDTV and the non-profit organisation World Vision India, was organised to raise funds to reach out to thousands of families, with immediate relief assistance and long-term recovery and rehabilitation programmes.


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