The forgotten masses
In this time of great crisis, India’s migrant workers continue to be hardest hit — suffering through starvation, loss of livelihoods and arbitrary, state-led suspension of labour laws; writes Asish Gupta
The Prime Minister is watching! The misery of the migrant workers has reached its peak during this lockdown. In the early hours of Friday, May 8, 16 migrant workers were crushed under a goods train on the railway track in Maharashtra. These hapless workers were on their way back to their home state of Madhya Pradesh on foot. On the same day, another tragic news related to a family of migrant workers is received. Migrant worker couple, Krishna and Premila, were hit by a car as they were cycling on their way from Uttar Pradesh to their home in Chhattisgarh. Two children, aged three and four, who were with them, are now admitted in a local hospital in critical condition. For the past one and a half months, migrant workers, who have been on their way home, have fallen into the clutches of deaths, sometimes hit by speeding cars and other times due to starvation and fatigue. And all this time, the Prime Minister is closely monitoring! Why have these unusual deaths been happening for the last month and a half? Was it impossible to prevent these deaths? But to whom are we asking these questions? Those who are expected to answer these questions are now too busy to keep an eye on the situation. They are now very busy implementing plans to convert workers into modern-day slaves or bonded labourers.
The pandemic has cast dark clouds in the lives of the workers. Even during this time of crisis, the Government is trying to ensure that the lives of the working people remain in darkness even after the threat of the virus disappears. Uttar Pradesh government has issued an ordinance suspending labour laws in the state for the next three years. Madhya Pradesh government has suspended important sections of the Labour Act for next 1,000 days. Like these two governments, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have changed the working hours of workers from 8 hours to 12 hours. To be clear, the very first proposal adopted a hundred years ago by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), under the auspices of the League of Nations, was to fix an eight-hour work-day. And India had recognised that proposal in 1921. The ILO had adopted that proposal in remembrance of the Chicago labour movement that took place on May 4, 1886. A historic decision recognised all over the world is being denied by taking cover under the Coronavirus infection. And all this is done very deliberately with a meticulous plan. The Central Government has become quiet in the name of studying the proposal sent by various organisations of industrialists while the states make their own decisions. Thus, if there is an international debate on the issue in future, the Centre will be able to say that they have not taken any action. Several state governments have independently brought about this temporary change. Thus the governments, in the pretext of the pandemic, are taking away those rights of the workers which were won through many movements and struggles. The Prime Minister is keeping an eye on the situation!
Let us come back to the two questions raised at the beginning of this discussion. In response to Prime Minister's call on March 22, middle and upper-class people had 'celebrated' a one-day Janata Curfew like a festival. The supporters and 'bhakts' of the Prime Minister had loudly proclaimed that observation of this 14 hour-long curfew would break the chains of Coronavirus infection and control its spread. Then, in the wake of popular response to the Janata Curfew, the Prime Minister announced a lockdown for 21 days from midnight on March 25 with just 4 hours notice. This sudden call reminded us of the demonetisation in September 2016, when he had cancelled 500 and 1000 rupee notes with only a four-hour notice. Even today, real economists do not understand the benefit of the country's economy as a result of the cancellation of those notes and the demonetisation process. In the same way, even 41 days after the lockdown, there is no clue as to why the number of Coronavirus cases and deaths is the highest in the last 24 hours.
Time and again, the poor people of the country realise, with their own lives, how horrible and ruthless the consequences of unplanned decisions can be. And their daily struggle for survival also teaches them that their place — in the state planning and project preparation — is at the very bottom. When the lockdown was announced at 8 pm on March 24, the fate of millions of migrant workers was left unclear. The speech did not express any thoughts on what will happen to the livelihood of 11 crore workers associated with micro, small and medium scale industries. And overnight, the survival of these workers — who form an essential part of the country's manufacturing and development — along with their family members, became dependent on charities and reliefs.
On March 26, the Union Finance Minister announced an attractive package worth Rs 1.7 lakh crore, a part of which was given a fancy name of 'Prime Minister's Poor Welfare Scheme.' The announcement said that free rice, wheat and pulses will be provided at the PDS or ration shops. To avail this opportunity, a person has to go to the specific ration shop where his/her card is registered. What will migrant workers do in such a scenario? They are living thousands of miles away from their homelands for the sake of their livelihood. That means there is no free ration for the migrant workers. After the announcement of the relief package by the finance minister, other ministers also started announcing relief measures. New statements were declared one after another. One day it was announced that employers would not be able to deduct salaries or wages from workers. The landlord cannot stress the workers to extract the rent. Ninety-five per cent of migrant workers did not receive any money from their employers in April. Forget about the unorganised sector, the decision to cut a portion of the salary even in the organised sector has been announced in many companies.
As the first phase of lockdown progressed, the lives of migrant workers became more miserable. The unrealistic announcement of the government and the betrayal of the mill-owners have left millions of migrant workers in the country on the brink of collapse. And from this situation begins the relentless effort to return to one's homeland. Many did not and will not make it.
The State government has announced financial compensation for the people killed in the recent gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam. Why doesn't the Central Government compensate the families of the migrant workers who have died on their way home?
Views expressed are strictly personal