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Migrant Labour Crisis in India during Covid-19

The shock which came in the name of Covid-19 shook the nations all over the world. In the fight, where the countries are planning to survive the best in the name of the lockdown keeping various important points at stake. Every class of society is getting affected by the lockdown. The badly affected ones are the low income-sector with minimal or no stabilized income at all. One such group of the low-income sector of the society is Migrant workers, which constitute most of it. Migrant workers are those people who leave their houses in search of work to some other place, traveling hundreds of miles away from their homes to fill the hungry stomachs of their families.
 
In India, the responsibility to take care of the migrants is of both the Centre and state as being a part of the concurrent list. There are various legislations made by the government such as Industrial Dispute Act, 1947, Trade Union Act, 1926, Minimum Wages Act, 1948, etc., but all these statues are made for the organized sector of the workmen. The majority of the workers are from the unorganized sectors with no law governing them. The government has not stated any law up till date about these unorganized migrant workers. MGNREGA is also of no benefit to the urban poor. Thus, with no one taking care of them, the migrant workers are in emotional distress. In the early days of lockdown when there was no provision for sending the workers to their homes neither by the state governments nor the central government.

The only solution they were able to find is to walk to their hometowns in search of food and shelter. Where, some didn’t hesitate cycling for 1000s of km to reach home,[1] many of them were reported to be dead while walking with no food and many of them seriously injured,[2] many were beaten by Police officials. The dead bodies of workers lying on ice slaps, who died in the Auraiya district and the injured workers were transported in the same truck by the administration of the district. However, some suspensions were done when this news came up into media. Who is responsible for this inhuman act is still a mystery.[3]

A good proportion of the issues reported are of the urban sector, however, the cases of the rural sector remained unheard. The migrant workers wish to get back home for food and shelter. These people live on rents and the landlords demand money monthly while the lockdown has shed away all their livelihood. In the earlier days of the lockdown, they were surviving on savings but now, only informal loans or handouts are the choice. No one knows how high these informal loans will charge.

These migrants who live in the cities are traveling 100 miles to reach their villages on foot with their families, including pregnant women and children. The state is demanding them to stay indoors when they have no food and money left with them.

The students of the middle class who were stuck in Rajasthan’s Kota were brought back by various state governments back. Data shows that about 369 students of Jammu and Kashmir, 1000 students of Haryana, etc., were sent back home either after their screening or with the intention to quarantine them after they reach their respective home towns. Students of different districts also left for their homes earlier.[4] This came up when a hashtag started on twitter as #SendUsBackHome by students tagging various authorities. The power of social media one could say enabled students to get back their home, who lived in the areas which aren’t COVID sensitive.

The question that arises in mind is that if the students were headed back to their homes and given permits to do so then why not the migrant laborers who are suffering more than the students? Why no buses are allotted by any of the state governments or the center to send them back home? Is it that the migrant laborers are more in number than the students or the politicians aren’t concerned about them because these migrant laborers aren’t a threat to their vote banks? Is India again starting up with the class system, which in reality never ended or the unavailableness of social media platform to these migrant laborers is the reason behind the unheard plea? Is it that the hunger for this class is different from the middle-class students?
 Questions are many with zero answers.
 
There is no clarity of thought anywhere on why India doesn’t have a structured plan about this crisis. For once, the government has deployed Police Officials on duty for making sure that everyone is at their houses but these migrant laborers have no houses of their own. Their daily life starts with waking on some road or rather an unhygienic place, doing the work to feed their stomachs, and then sleeping at the same place.

On one side the government is talking about sanitization but not giving the laborers necessaries. How is it possible? Some don’t have houses and those who have, doesn’t have food to survive. Maybe, the government is taking these people for granted because as soon as the situation turns normal, they will once again come back to their places in search of work. Many students were allowed to enter India from foreign countries. Is it that the question of the safety of a poor man isn’t the same as the safety of those rich students who came back from foreign?[5] 
 
Various PILs have been filed in the courts regarding the deteriorating condition of these workers, one such PIL is moved by Advocate Prashant Bhushan on behalf of the Association of Democratic Reforms. This PIL demanded nothing more than providing transportation facilities to the migrant workers who are tested negative from Covid-19. This would make them live a dignified life and would be able to work and no more violation of their fundamental right would be done.[6] The Supreme Court (Virtual Court – 2), on 05.05.2020 closed the petition after hearing the arguments from both the sides.

In which, the Solicitor General of Union of India, Tushar Mehta presented the order dated 20.03.2020 according to which government of India has accepted the movement of workers, pilgrims, etc. when Prashant Bhushan mentioned about the 15% fee charged from these people if they avail train services, Tushar Mehta said that all the appropriate steps were taken by the railways.

The Court also held that the decision of the amount of fare to be taken is not in the scope of Article 32 of the Indian Constitution.[7]
Another PIL, Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India was dismissed by the Apex Court of India. The Application prayed that the District Magistrates across the country should monitor and identify the migrants walking and make arrangements for them to reach their hometowns free of cost. Court held that the state governments must take necessary actions about the situation and Judicial bodies have no role to play in it.[8]
 
While the Supreme Court is busy shutting down PILs, the High Court is tackling the issues more generously. Madras High Court Suo moto directed central and state government to submit a report on the actions taken for the welfare of migrant laborers during the lockdown. Andhra Pradesh High Court issued orders for adequate food arrangements, sanitary napkins, drinking water, glucose packets, temporary toilet facilities, and trained paramedical doctors at shelter homes.

Delhi High Court ensured the uninterrupted service of the Helpline numbers. Karnataka high court showed concern about the arrangements of special trains for migrants. Kerala, Orissa, Bombay, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Telangana and Jammu, and Kashmir High court also ordered for providing food and shelter to migrants.[9] Centre has also directed states and Union Territories for the same and ordered to consult these migrants till they board the special trains or buses.[10] The Scopes of the PILs which once were broadened with the intention to give a better life to the citizens are now limited to the literal meaning only by the supreme court in various cases.
 
After a long wait, Indian government came up with “The Covid-19 Relief Package”, carrying various benefits to the migrants, such as free food supply for two months, activation of ‘One Nation One Ration Card’, granting affordable houses under PMAY, the extension of MGNREGA to monsoons as well. The package will itself take time to get established because there isn’t any data of the migrants with the states, making it difficult to identify and distribute all the benefits.
 
The government also started “Special Shramik” trains but while 1,565 trains ferried 20 lakh migrants up till 19th May 2020[11], still many could be seen in the shelter homes struggling with kilometers of lines for food while taking care of social distancing. India still waiting for the “Aadhar” which once was given on record.

References:
  1. Satysundar Barik, Migrant worker cycles 1,700 km from Maharashtra to reach home in Odisha (19.05.2020 12:50 A.M.) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/migrant-worker-cycles-1700-km-from-maharashtra-to-reach-home-in-odisha/article31317053.ece
  2. See Uttar Pradesh Truck accident kills migrant labourer many injured, (19.05.2020, 12:48 A.M.) https://www.thequint.com/news/india/uttar-pradesh-truck-accident-kills-migrant-labourers-many-injured 
  3. See Auraiya mishap: UP sends bodies of victims with migrants in open truck (19.05.2020, 08:34 P.M.) https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/19/auraiya-mishap-up-sends-bodies-of-victims-with-migrants-in-open-truck-2145400.html 
  4. See Lockdown: Kota students finally getting back home in various states, but thousands still await orders (20.05.2020, 10:17 A.M.)  https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/lockdown-kota-students-getting-back-home-thousands-await-orders-1673725-2020-05-02 
  5. Vandana, India can stop worrying about its poor. They will be back to build our cities when this is over, (19.05.2020, 08:02 P.M.) https://www.dailyo.in/variety/migrant-labourers-migrant-workers-coronavirus-covid-19-bandra/story/1/32715.html 
  6. See PIL in Supreme Court seeks to allow migrant workers to return home after COVID test (20.05.2020, 10:05 A.M.) https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/apr/18/pil-in-supreme-court-seeks-to-allow-migrant-workers-to-return-home-after-covid-test-2131945.html
  7. See https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2020/10947/10947_2020_32_8_21916_Order_05-May-2020.pdf 
  8. Radhika Roy, ‘How Can We Stop Them From Walking?' : SC Refuses To Entertain Plea For Migrants On Road, (20.05.2020, 07:46 A.M.) https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/sc-refuses-to-entertain-plea-for-migrants-on-road-156803 
  9. Apoorva Mandhani, SC can’t ‘monitor’ walking migrants, but 12 HCs have issued orders on food and shelter, (19.05.2020, 10:34 P.M.) https://theprint.in/judiciary/sc-cant-monitor-walking-migrants-but-12-hcs-have-issued-orders-on-food-and-shelter/424241/
  10. See Centre asks states to provide food, shelter to migrant workers, (19.05.2020, 10:52 P.M.) https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/centre-asks-states-to-provide-food-shelter-to-migrant-workers-85275 
  11. See https://zeenews.india.com/india/operated-1565-shramik-special-trains-since-may-1-ferried-over-20-lakh-migrants-railways-2284718.html

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