Images of hundreds of migrant workers walking in the sweltering heat making a desperate attempt to go back to their villages following the sudden announcement of a national lockdown continue to haunt public memory. The vulnerability of the millions of informal sector workers in India was exposed like never before, with the public health crisis quickly turning into a humanitarian crisis. There were tragic instances, like the death of 16 workers who had stopped to rest and were run over by a passing train while they were sleeping.
Shockingly, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha last week, the Minister of Labour and Employment said that they did not have any data on the number of workers who died or were injured during migration back to their native places. The general attitude of the government towards the condition of migrant workers has been one of such apathy and denial.
Following public outrage to such a response to the question in Parliament, the Minister later “clarified” that it was the responsibility of state governments to maintain such data and that the central government did not usually compile such data. Hiding behind such bureaucratic excuses only further represents the extent to which the government of the day is undermining the value of the life of its citizens. A group of volunteers maintained a list of 971 reported and verified non-covid deaths that could be attributed to the national lockdown for over two months. This list included 96 deaths in shramik trains, 209 deaths caused by accidents and 216 deaths attributed to starvation and financial distress. The scale of distress is massive; with the same response in Parliament also giving the figure that over 1.04 crore workers returned to their home state, based on the data that the Ministry has from state governments (data is missing for a number of states including Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Karnataka). This is the official data and does not include all those who walked back. Others have estimated the number of returning migrants to be in the range of at least 2-3 crore.
As the economic crisis continues, it is imperative that the conditions of living of migrant workers are better understood and that there are concerted efforts made by the government to improve their situation. The government never had an accurate estimate of how many migrant workers there are in the country. In the last week of May, the centre said that around four crore migrant workers are engaged in various works in different parts of the country and by then over 75 lakh had left for their home states by trains and buses. The Economic Survey of 2017 estimated that there are about 6 crore inter-state migrant workers and another 8 crore inter-district migrants. What is certain is that the scale is massive and from all accounts based on independent surveys on impact of the lockdown and the pandemic a large proportion of migrants and informal sector workers lost their jobs and faced a situation of food insecurity.
While saying that there is no data is one aspect of the problem, a related and serious issue is the inadequacy of the government’s response. Given the fact that the centre has much greater fiscal legroom as well as an accountability to people for the impact of the lockdown that was imposed by it, much more would have been expected towards addressing at least the basic needs of the workers. First, arrangements for travel through trains were not made for over a month after the crisis began. Even when the shramik trains were started, there was still a lot of confusion and the centre failed to play the role of being the co-ordinating agency between states or of setting the norms for safe travel, access to tickets and so on. Second, a number of initiatives that the government claims to have undertaken do not provide much immediate relief to migrant workers with loan-based schemes such as the PM SVANidhi Scheme and strengthening of MSME sector depending also on revival of demand in the economy.
Third, even the schemes that were announced for immediate relief have been inadequate in scope and coverage. The cash transfer that was provided from the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Cess Fund comes to only about Rs. 2,500 per head (Rs. 5000 crore for about 2 crore migrant workers) which is hardly sufficient to meet even a month’s food expenses for a family. Further, this definitely leaves out many as large numbers of construction workers are not registered with the Construction Workers’ Board. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) providing free grains and pulses for 80 crore people up to November has been a life-saver for many but excludes some of the most marginalised as it is a benefit for only those who have an active ration card under the National Security Act. As estimated by Khera and Somanchi, over 40% of the population are excluded.
Migrant workers were among those who were not able to get this benefit because a number of them did not have ration cards and even if they did, the card was not issued at the destination location and so they were not able to avail the benefit. The Atmanirbhar package included providing free foodgrains and pulses for a period of two months for 8 crore migrant workers. However, only about 2.4 crore beneficiaries have been covered under this scheme. This is more likely because of tardy implementation and lack of clear instructions rather than the requirement itself being low as is being argued by the government. For example, 54 lakh people registered when the Delhi government opened up (aadhaar-based) applications by non-ration card holders for e-coupons for rations, while the quota under Atmanirbhar package for Delhi was only around 7.27 lakh persons. The increase in wage rates under the MG-NREGA has been negligible and the additional work that is promised under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan also inadequate as it ensures 125 days of employment to 67 lakhs migrant workers.
While the conditions of migrant workers, those who are in the destination states as well as those who are back in the home states, continues to be perilous the government on the one hand continues to be in denial while on the other pushing through labour reforms which could further undermine the rights of informal sector. The government has introduced three crucial Bills in the Parliament - Code on Industrial Relations, the Social Security Code and the Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Condition. There needs to be a public debate on these before they can be taken forward in the Parliament, acknowledging everything that migrant and informal workers have been through in the last few months.
(Views are personal)
*Dipa Sinha teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi