Mystery surrounds PM CARES Fund
PM CARES Fund is not coming to the rescue despite the migrant labour crisis
This week, while we were busy with our webinars, video calls to friends, cooking new recipes and working out in the comfort of our homes, thousands were still trying to find their way home. The way we have handled the migrant labour issue in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis has been nothing short of embarrassing. First, the lack of notice on the lockdown left them staring at overnight removal of livelihood and sustenance. Then the unavailability of transport forced scores of labourers and daily wage earners to undertake arduous journeys on foot.
Here we struggle to complete our 10,000 steps on Fitbit, while so many of our fellow citizens, young and old, women and children, walked in the heat and dust, with little or no food, crisscrossing state borders just to go home. We are so privileged to be able to sit within protective walls and beat 'thalis' (plates) to appreciate Corona warriors, while our poorest sections face uncertain futures. These labourers are the backbone of our country, they stay miles away from home, and work in factories, construction sites, etc. At this time when a global pandemic has wiped out industries and millions of jobs, these unsung heroes have been reduced to nothing. Our migrant labours are nation-builders, who earn through their hands paying with sweat and hard work for meagre wages. They are proud workers of this great nation who are today reduced to feeling like beggars.
And we keep hearing stories that we forget as soon as we switch on our favourite show on OTT platforms. A few labourers died of exhaustion while trying to get home, 18 of them were discovered in the steel drum of a concrete mixer travelling from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai, 16 migrant labourers walking from Bhusawal to Jalna in Madhya Pradesh, weary from their journeys, fall asleep while resting on train tracks, only to be run over by a train. But we go back to our lives in lockdown, cribbing daily about how unfair the universe is to us!
Even when trains were finally started after 45-plus days to take the labourers home, the railways charged them for their tickets! And in states like Karnataka, labourers have been coerced to stay put; sorry, no trains to take you home because the moneyed builder lobby needs you. Are migrant labourers our slaves or bonded labour? Instead of sweetening their reason to stay back by giving them higher wages and better amenities, forcing them to stay with a blanket ban on trains was draconian. This decision has since been reversed after it invited widespread criticism. Governments in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are doing away with crucial labour laws that safeguard the employment and safety of labourers in order to help businesses.
I do not know what psychological damage this does to thousands who stare at paltry government largesse. They were not rich but were self-sufficient, earning just about enough to get by. But now they wait for scraps from the government, sops that never really come, and unpredictable government policies that show no compassion or concern for the labour class. The treatment meted out to them robs them of basic human dignity. I can give an example closer home. My domestic help looked embarrassed to take money from me since she did not work even a day in April. She was grateful for the support but did not exude her usual confidence. Just a few months ago while taking her salary, she had smiled and demanded a hike. "I do so much work, didi," she said and was glad that I had agreed.
Which brings me to a burning question. What is the PM CARES Fund for if not to help migrant and other labour? The PM CARES Fund, exactly on the lines of the PMNRF (Prime Minister's National Relief Fund), was instated to draw in donations to help the country fight the COVID-19 crisis. The official website says, "Keeping in mind the need for having a dedicated national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide relief to the affected, a public charitable trust under the name of 'Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund' (PM CARES Fund)' has been set up." Is not the migrant labour issue a matter of 'distress'? Why then are they being charged for train tickets? Why are they complaining of lack of food?
We know that corporates in India have generously donated to the PM CARES Fund. Even at the cost of their own employees' well-being, fat cheques have been given to help Prime Minister Narendra Modi tackle the Coronavirus fallout. News reports suggest that startups such as Cure.fit have laid off over 800 employees and reserved Rs 2 crore as an emergency fund but donated Rs 5 crore to the PM CARES Fund. Reliance that has picked up a sizeable booty with its deal with Facebook and Silver Lake, donated Rs 500 crore to the PM CARES Fund even as it announced salary cuts for employees. Unlike the PMNRF, PM CARES Fund allows companies to donate under CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility); a convenient ruse to be exploited by both the Government and corporates.
Indians stuck abroad are being brought back to country shores but being charged high flight ticket prices. So, if not for migrant labour or Indians stranded overseas, what is this PM CARES Fund for? We will never know because…wait for it…there will be no government auditing of the funds.
The writer is an author & media entrepreneur. Views expressed are strictly personal