The government's sudden enforcement of the lockdown, a hastily prepared decision, immediately resulted in innumerable miseries of the vulnerable populations. There has been a mass exodus of migrant workers and concerns are rising about starvation among people who work in the informal economy. Implementing public health measures is difficult in places with overcrowded living conditions and inadequate hygiene and sanitation.
Workers in the unorganized had no clue what was in store for them, when the Prime Minister announced “Janta (People) Curfew” on March 22nd, followed by a nationwide lockdown on 24th March.
We hear stories of hunger, poverty and misery every day from different parts of our country. The national capital has huge number of labourers stranded on the road with no means of survival. Seeing the condition of the migrant labourers the Civil Society Organizations and Religious Organizations are out on the street to serve the poor. The NGOs whose’ FCRA has been frozen by the government for the reasons best known to them or for no reasons are also serving the migrant labourers in their dire need for food.
In spite of the glorious announcement I have not come across any person receiving relief neither from the Prime Minister Relief fund nor from Prime Minister Care Fund Trust. In fact the Prime Minister’s Care Fund is only to combat the COVID – 19 crisis but the crisis remain critical till date with regard to feeding the migrant labourers who were not allowed to travel back to their villages. Those who come to collect food after starving for days together say, ‘We may not die of Corona Virus but may die of hunger’.
Examples galore. Let me narrate an incident in Delhi with regard to the distribution of ration to 4000 migrant labourers who live in Delhi – Faridabad border. They who have no ration card. A few NGOs got together to help out the migrant laboures and requested the Faridabad DM to make arrangements for food. The NGOs too expressed their willingness to share their contributions. For three weeks the local administration dilly – dallied on the request. We pursued the matter through ‘Distress Management Collective (DMC)’ which is constituted under the able leadership of Mr. Alphonse Kannathanam, MP and Retd Judge, Justice Kurian Joseph, and many other philanthropic persons.
Delhi is the second largest migrant population in India after Maharashtra. To combat poverty, Bandhua Mukti Morcha, CCBI Commission for Migrants, Sisters of the Holy Cross, Human Rights Law Network, National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour, Distress Management Collective (DMC)’, BREAD Noida and Working Peoples Charter are working together during this lockdown to feed the migrant labourers who have no access for ration particularly in Delhi - Haryana & Delhi – U.P border. There are other organisations as well doing their best for the same cause. Every day there are requests for food or ration and the needs are met with the generous contribution of individuals and organisations.
The direction of the Government of India to the general public for Social distancing, sanitizing, wearing of mask etc., are very good steps. The labourers living in the labour camps squeeze themselves in the camps. Seeing the pathetic condition of the laboureres who contribute to the economy of the country the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour filed a petition in the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi. The Hon’ble High Court passed an Order directing the Govt. of Delhi to appoint Nodal Officers and take care of the migrant laboureres languishing in the Labour Camps. We are happy the camps are provided with cooked food as well as dry ration. It is to be noted that some labour camps are filled with the rescued bonded labourers who are living and earning in the national capital. I am sure it is not an isolated case but in many states the labour camps are deprived of basic necessities.
There is a long way to go to take the migrants workers into confidence as they have lost trust in the government. These poor workers have been always used as vote bank, every time before the election they are assured of ration cards, electricity, water supply etc. Government announced online ration card to those who have no cards. The surprising fact is that had they knew all the technical part of procuring a ration card they would not have waited till now. Many whom we approached said, with the help of those who have android mobile, they did their registration but it was shown pending. Confronting the government our network has urged the authority to take appropriate steps in feeding the migrant labourers. Government of Delhi has intervened in feeding and it is working at a snail’s pace, but we hope it will speed up in the coming days.
Even as the government has sought to revive economic activity in a phased manner, stranded migrant workers are skeptical about staying on. With uncertainty looming large over the trajectory of the deadly coronavirus in the coming days, they are eager to return home . In the shutdown, India has banned domestic and international travel, and factories, schools, offices and all shops other than those supplying essential services have been shut. Taken together, the measures amount to one of the harshest lockdowns in the world. Migrants are the backbone of the urban economy. Construction workers are a necessity for India's rapidly expanding cities. They predominantly earn daily wages, with no prospect of job security, and live in dirty, densely populated slums, saving money to send back home. That money is essential to the young and elderly left behind in villages. Around $30 billion flows from urban to rural areas in India each year, according to government and academic estimates.
The government should universalise the Public Distribution System to avoid starvation and distress amid the coronavirus-induced lockdown in the country. In every state there are thousands of people without ration cards. They also do not have ration cards in the states where they have gone to seek work. Hence the government should take steps to provide universal coverage to any person or family which seeks ration, irrespective of their status. Government needs to make arrangements that all migrant workers be immediately registered by the government and a helpline set up to respond to their issues, both in terms of their rations and also other needs.
Ministry of Labour and Employment issued a notification to the Chief Secretaries of all states and circulated it on March 20th, 2020 stating ‘In the backdrop of such challenging situation, all the Employers of public/Private Establishments may be advised to extend their coordination by not terminating their employees, particularly casual or contractual workers from job or reduce their wages. If any worker takes leave, he should be deemed to be on duty without any consequential deduction in wages for this period. Further if the place of employment is to be made non – operational due to COVID – 19, the employees of such unit will be deemed to be on duty..’ it is well said about the way the employers should take care of the employees. The ministry has recommended it to the Employers and Owners of all the establishments.
However it has come to our notice that the migrants are left with no choice other than leaving the city or die of hunger. Most of the migrants survive on hand to mouth living. Without work, they are on the verge of death by hunger.
The long-term impact of the shutdown, will be lots of starvation deaths, destitution and penury. All the poor and lower middle classes will be in long-term misery. The economy is devastated.
Again the philanthropic NGOs and organizations are at their side to provide for them. Risking one’s life to save the other, many Samaritans are caring for the migrants with COVID – 19 Duty Curfew Pass.
Whether living in shelters, sleeping on footpaths or under flyovers, the migrants are restless and are waiting for restrictions to be eased so they can go home. Lawyer -activist Prashant Bhushan, who has filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking for migrants to be allowed to return home, rightly said "By shutting everything down, you may be able to save 1,00,000 lives, but if the lockdown continues, you'll kill one million from hunger and starvation."
I feel the government which takes legal measures to chart flight to bring migrants from foreign countries to India should also make arrangement for the interstate migrants to have a dignified travel to their homeland. The labour commission should take those employers into task who willfully disobeyed the law in not registering the employees to the concerned department and provide benefits of it. After all, no one is the above the law. There are strange cases referred to us saying some institutions do not pay salaries/ wages to their employees or underpay their due.
There may not be any May Day – 2020 celebrations but every employer must remember that we are responsible to take care of those who helped us to make our daily life easy and livable. On every aspect of our life there is a fingerprint of a migrant labour. Their hardships are the concerns of the nation now, it has to be handled well.
(Published on 04th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 19)