Millennium Post

Lost labour of love

Millions walking back to their homes today have one thing in common—they are nameless, faceless, unsung… No one knows who they are, where they belong or where they are headed

Even as Lockdown 3.0 ended, millions of Indians continued to trudge along on the country's roads and highways. These are India's migrant workers, whom joblessness and abject poverty have forced to leave their metropolis work cities and embark on the long walk back home, to villages and towns across rural India. Many of these people make it only a short distance, stopped as they are at state borders and thrown into quarantine zones and isolation camps for the mandatory 14-day check to thwart the deathly march of COVID-19.

This has seen some of these migrant workers becoming enterprising to avoid detention — they are walking not on roads and highways but are cutting across farmlands and trundling along railway tracks. There are a few horror stories of some sleeping on these railway tracks, eventually becoming fodder for the trains that are now finally traversing the country, transporting more of their own back home. That's part of the Government's 'largesse' in running special Shramik Express trains nearly 40 days after the imposition of the lockdown at a few hours' notice.

Nameless, unsung heroes

The only thing that is common among those walking along the tracks and those riding in the special trains is that they are all nameless, faceless, unsung… No one knows who they are, where they come from, or where they are headed. That's because India has never attempted or bothered to put together a list of these migrant workers, a ready reckoner or database that would have immensely helped in reaching out and assisting them in this hour of terrible tragedy and crisis.

And therein lies a stark dichotomy — nearly all of these migrants have Aadhar cards and mobile phones, and these two possessions alone could have ensured that the creation of such a database was quick, easy and accurate. Further, the lack of such a list makes one wonder just how the Government plans to reach out to these people and make them part-beneficiaries of the Rs 20-lack-crore revival package, because, for all official and practical purposes, these people do not exist.

Long, hard road ahead

As India enters the third month in the battle against COVID-19, the road ahead is sure to be long, hard and full of suffering. The crying need of the hour is to dissipate some of that suffering, getting our act together and beginning an overhaul of the labour sector. Ironically, even 70 years after independence, India's labour ministry has never been given the importance it deserves, especially so as it is expected to oversee the lives and livelihoods of crores of people. They take care of our factories. They construct the fancy houses we live in. They build the roads and superhighways we scoot along. They cook, manage our homes and gardens, collect litter the morning after… Our invisible, uncared for, always taken-for-granted saviours.

Just get a whiff of the numbers involved — the country's last census pegged the number of migrant workers in India at over 40 crores. Mind you, these numbers are years old. Rapid economic growth and capitalism of the last decade have surely pushed this number beyond the 50-crore today. That much of a chunk of our population surely deserves to be recognised, tabulated and accounted for.

Is the ISMW Act dead?

Let's talk specifics. A report by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) underscores the fact that it is the responsibility of the Center and State Governments to protect the rights of migrant workers, as ensconced in the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act of 1979 (ISMW), but this has been woefully ignored and neglected, even abused. Has the States implemented ISMW willfully, they would have ready access to a complete database of migrant workers — their home state address, their type of employment, bank account details and mobile number.

Access to this database would have ensured that the mass migration being witnessed in the country today could either have been avoided after the lockdown or managed far more efficiently. But the only recent development on labour rights was a denial, last week, of those very rights under the garb of reviving India's now fragile economy and manufacturing sector. That can only make one assume that the intent of ISMW 1979, for all practical purposes, is dead and gone.

No official list of migrants

A large proportion of India's workers are migrants, hailing primarily from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa and the North-East. And predominantly, they end up working in Delhi-NCR, Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — as many as 90 per cent of migrant workers make these states their employment base. And even in today's highly digitised world, these 40-crore-plus Indian migrant workers are given but a cursory once-over at the time of employment; a quick check of a photocopy of their Aadhar card (which over 90 crore Indians have now), plus a jotting down of their postal address and mobile number in a diary that is quickly forgotten in a drawer or bureau somewhere on the work-floor or premises.

There is no official entry of their existence in any database or list in any computer in the country. For India, this process has worked fine for decades now. But come a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic which kills the job prospects of crores of workers overnight and sends them scurrying back home across the length and breadth of the country, this is a deadly recipe for complete disarray and absolute disaster.

The ORF report also states that other than ISMW 1979, there are other Government provisions to protect the rights of migrant workers, such as the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970; the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976; and the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, amongst others.

Does India even care?

But what we have seen in television news reports over the last two months shows us clearly that no one really gives much of a thought to India's migrant working class, or what these people have been going through since the lockdowns began. The only time they have been important is when certain relaxations were provided in Lockdown 3.0 and Corporates got worried that there would be no one to man their shop-floors once their factories resumed work again. They reached out to certain Chief Ministers and within hours, some states cancelled trains that were to carry migrant workers back home. But facing a massive pushback and whiplash in the social media, the trains were quickly allowed to ply.

So much for rhetoric — let's see what we can do to put this right while we still have a chance. A recent Reuters' report cites Indian bureaucrat Pranabjyoti Nath and his efforts to document migrant workers and their on-going struggle. These people are in a terrible state, with no access to a few rupee notes and there's no bread in their mouth. Along with a team of volunteers, Nath is putting together a list of names and bank account details of 4,00,000 migrant labourers. Kerala's Labour Commissioner, Nath, claims to have stitched together details of nearly 3,00,000 of India's nameless people. He adds that while the lockdown would eventually be lifted, the data being compiled by his team is the only way for the Government to reach those who desperately need help.

Migrant data leap a must

That's 3,00,000 out of 4,00,000. One lot – 75 per cent done. But we are talking over 50 crore in all. The first steps have been taken, but a gnawing gap remains. It's time to take a leap, and the times call for it. Let's get the Labour Ministry to be something that Cabinet members vie for, not shy away from. Let's get the best man for the best job — that of managing 50 crore Indian lives. The best from our choicest list of bureaucrats should manage the show. Bring in IT-enablement and computerisation, get the database in place.

When the mobile and 4G revolution took forth, our migrants held fort — the new consumers. Cast them to the ashes, our yearning for products and capitalism is over. They were to be our new middle class — the new consumers. We discarded them.

In this pandemic, the rich and the upper middle class are suffering too. Their salaries have been slashed. They are buying less. Remove the 'upper' and you have them – a new 'middle class'. Remove the 'rich' and you have a new upper middle class. The retired? They are staring starvation and familial and financial embarrassment in the face.

Do we want to dance this dance?

The author is a business analyst and communications specialist. Views expressed are strictly personal

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