Neither Centre nor states fair to migrant labour: why should they pay for keeping us safe?

It is becoming increasingly clear that this is no country for migrant workers, treated as bonded labour and deemed a necessary evil to drive the economy and serve the rich and the middle class

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Prosenjit Datta

As the lockdown keeps getting extended again and again, the attitude of the union government and the state governments towards migrant workers is becoming increasingly clear.

For many states, they are no better than bonded labour. For others, they are not citizens with full rights but merely a necessary evil to be tolerated to get the economy going once again.

After 40 days, when the union government again extended the lockdown, it finally got around to announcing special trains – Shramik Specials – that would take migrant workers back to their states, provided the home states requested for them.

Initially, it also decided that the labourers should pay the fare– though the outcry that followed and when the opposition Congress party offered to pay for the labourers’ journey – the government quickly came out with a series of clarifications and notifications that only created further confusion.

If the Union government came across as callous and indifferent to the plight of the labourers, the attitude of the states was no better. Karnataka chief minister B S Yeddyurappa suddenly decided to cancel the Shramik Specials after a bunch of builders told him that they would face labour shortages to work on construction sites if migrant labour was allowed to go back.

BJP Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya tweeted about how great a step this was and how this would benefit both the labourers and Karnataka’s economy. The backlash on social media to his tweet and the Karnataka government’s move forced the state to backtrack.

Meanwhile, as other states realised that there was no use restarting economic activities if the workers were not available or could not be made to work extra hard, they started coming up with their own “innovations”.

The Madhya Pradesh government talked of modifying labour laws to help businessmen. Uttar Pradesh went a step further and suspended all normal labour laws with a few exceptions using an ordinance. Other states have started checking whether similar steps can be implemented – especially if migrants are necessary for things ranging from getting factories running again to harvesting in farms.

It is nobody’s case that India’s labour laws are antiquated and need to be overhauled. But suspending them without any debate or discussion is not the best way forward as it takes away whatever little legal protection migrant workers enjoy. Given the fact that India’s social security for migrant workers is non-existent, this is a particularly cruel step.

Home states have proved no more empathetic. Some have simply decided to put workers coming back in containment centres for 15 or 30 days to ensure they are not infected and capable of transmitting the virus to others. This after many of them have already spent 40 days in shelters in other states where this was again the goal – to prevent transmission of the virus. Others have grumbled sotto voce on the cost of screening workers coming back. Still others have expressed fear that the returning workers could quickly overrun already stretched healthcare facilities in case they fall ill.

As per reports coming in, many migrant workers do not want to stay back – they had been denied their dues by their employers when the lockdown happened. Many of them got no support from the state governments either – if they were lucky, they got put up in shelters that were often not fit for housing animals. Others simply had to sleep on the roads as they travelled.

If they tried to go home, they were often beaten up brutally. The state and district authorities, armed with wide powers bestowed on them by the National Disaster Relief Act and Sec 144, have treated starving labourers trying to get home as law and order problems.

The union government has done its bit with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs exhorting states multiple times to ensure that no one flouted the lockdown conditions – which essentially meant, came out on any road without permission.

Business leaders have also made their views clear as well. Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy has tweeted that Indians should be willing to work 60 hours a week for several years to get the economy back on track. Other business leaders have grumbled about the burden of paying labour sitting idle or the extra costs of screening workers once factories have got permission to restart.

What is clear is that after announcing the lockdown at four hours’ notice, the union government did nothing much to plan about the workers stuck away from home without jobs or support systems and with money running out.

After several days, as reports kept pouring in about the plight of the migrant workers, the Centre instructed state governments to take care of the problem and ensure that these workers were contained in some sort of facility till the lockdown was over.

The states themselves were not particularly welcoming – until that is the lockdown was almost over and economic activity started. Some of them did not have the resources while others were not particularly welcoming towards outside workers anyway.

As workers have tried to get back, over one hundred have died on the way. Today, reports have come in of 16 workers who stopped to rest on the railway tracks only to be run over by a goods train.

The pandemic has thrown everyone’s life out of gear. Except the very rich, almost everyone, including the middle class which has enjoyed the fruits of economic liberalisation, has found their lifestyles cramped by the virus and the government response.

But no one has been worse affected than the migrant worker and casual labour. For a disease which initially spread because of the globe-trotting habits of the rich and the middle class, this is unkindest cut of all.

(The author is former editor of Business Today and BusinessWorld magazines. This piece first appeared in his blog

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