How dare we
After having starved themselves to death; after putting their lives at risk to reach home; after blistering their feet to see their families and after shedding tears over lost family members, our migrant workers are returning home. But what we really need to ask is whether it is fair to strip these workers of their rights at a time like this and why is it that we still do not have a centralised mechanism to account for every single one of our migrant workers
The Government of India had predicted that India would start having zero daily COVID-19 cases by May 16.
On May 16, India's COVID-19 tally crossed that of China's as it reported 3,970 new cases and 103 deaths in 24 hours.
Since the beginning of the public health crisis in India, the government's response has been characterised by the ignorance of scientific evidence-based interventions recommended by its own scientists; a seeming ignorance of the plight of the poorest in our country – incidentally the reason some of our richest are so well-endowed; and what can only be described as apathy for the lakhs of inter-state migrant workers. Government lawyers confidently told the top court that they had taken care of all migrant workers; Ministers told reporters that they had ensured zero starvation during the lockdown and the Prime Minister made addresses to the nation that failed to address the sheer cruelty of the lockdown.
While it has now been established that concocted "predictive models" of the efficacy of the lockdown seem completely out of touch with reality; what the government has effectively managed to do is invisibilise the backbone of our developing economy – the migrant workers who have quite literally built the country from ground up and the same migrant workers the government hopes to use to implement its grand Rs 20,000 crore plan to build the Central Vista.
Almost the entire textile industry and diamond craftsmanship in Gujarat is supported by migrant workers. The skyscrapers in Noida, Gurugram, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi would not have been built without the migrant workers coming in from Bihar, UP and other states. Public infrastructure projects worth lakhs of crores in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha are basically being run and successfully completed courtesy of migrant workers. And after nearly 40 days of a harsh lockdown without planning to provide for these migrant workers, the government has decided to "help them get home" by trains.
Alas, if they had thought of this before, the 16 workers who were killed on a track in Aurangabad would have been on a train back home rather than being crushed by one. The tracks would have had special trains instead of thousands of migrants walking on them and their lifeless bodies – lives that could have been saved even if the government's response to the pandemic was initiated even a week before it did. So far, the conditions imposed by the lockdown have killed hundreds if not thousands of migrant workers on roads and train tracks across the country.
And now that the workers have started to return to their home states, large numbers of them "swearing to never come back" to the cities that chewed them up and spit them out need to find jobs and employment in their home states as they prepare to whether the storm. However, given the condition of the economy, the changes in labour laws being tabled by governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Odisha and Goa just go further to show that workers are not the priority for administrations.
How dare we think that it is okay to first put these workers through hell and high water to reach their home states and then decide that they need to work without basic rights to get back to rebuilding our capitalist utopia.
The labour law changes proposed by the UP government including scrapping all but four laws for the next three years for new and existing businesses. After backlash on the ordinance, CM Adityanath was quoted as saying that these changes would only apply to new businesses. The changes will scrap welfare provisions for workers, meaning employers would not be required to ensure cleanliness, disposal of waste, lighting, drinking water, urinals, canteens, rest rooms, crèches, and wages during the leave period.
These changes also extend working hours from eight hours to 11 hours and dismantle industrial dispute settlement mechanisms, allowing employers to retrench or lay-off workers without giving the ability to raise their grievances.
Similar changes have been proposed by Madhya Pradesh and labour law changes curtailing workers' rights are being considered in many other states, most of which are starting with increased working hours by citing the need to "boost the economy and create jobs that would eventually create demand".
And while the cruelty of curtailing the rights of workers who have been the hardest hit in this crisis is not a matter of debate, does experience show that regressive labour law changes lead to creation of employment as promised by these state governments?
Even the most conservative estimates show that UP is expecting to receive around 20 lakh migrant workers in the coming days, MP around the same number, Haryana has seen about 1.76 lakh registrations to return home. Cities such as Gurugram already have around 15 lakh migrant workers in the construction sector, most of whom have left for their home states and the rest are on their way to do that same. So, given the slump our economy is facing and the serious labour crisis, which has been admitted by industrialists in meetings with governments, how do these migrant workers get jobs once they get home.
The state governments would like to think that easing labour laws and by increasing working hours is the best way to do that. Many experts have said that such changes only "create an environment enabling exploitation". This is because far from achieving reformative objectives, scrapping labour laws, in addition to stripping workers of their basic rights would also significantly drive down wages, which would ultimately not create the demand stimulus intended. For instance, the dismantling of industrial dispute mechanism in UP would just incentivise manufacturers to fire their workforce and then hire them back at lower wages, without a reprieve for workers.
Again, the objective of increasing working hours, which has been popular with state governments across the political spectrum, would not achieve the objective of creating employment. For instance, if the administration had instead decided to create provisions for two 8-hour shifts, it would employ one additional worker with all workers retaining their right to a humane working shift.
And added to that is the trust deficit that has been created by large employers across the country during the lockdown. While the Ministry of Home Affairs had made it clear through an order that employers must continue paying salaries during the lockdown, some of the biggest manufacturers like Larsen and Toubro have not done so, kept their workers (in some cases locked in) under deplorable conditions without the provision for basic meals and rations.
This trust deficit for one has been admitted by industrialists themselves in meetings with government officials while raising concerns of labour shortages and the workers no longer have the faith that their employers in big cities will live up to their obligations. Many, who are finally returning home now, have made it clear that the cities had betrayed their trust and that they would never return.
And what remains to be the main issue here is that we still do not know how many inter-state migrants India has. There is still no concrete data on how many migrant workers are returning to their states in this mass reverse-migration exercise and there is no database that tracks workers travelling to other states for labour-intensive employment.
Since 2014, the government has stressed the need to track Indians and keep a secure database of all citizens – all in the name of being able to provide facilities to those who need it the most. The basic line to be towed was always: "How will we help the needy if we do not know how many there are and who they are?" The same lines of argument were used while bringing in mandatory linking provisions for Aadhaar and PAN numbers.
Yet, despite the continuous efforts of this government to keep track of its citizens there is not a single database that tracks the urban poor in our country. According to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's fiscal stimulus announcement, there are roughly 8 crore urban poor (including migrant workers and yet we do not know the exact number of migrant workers who have been walking the country's highways since March.
And now that the government has finally come around to plan the return of these migrant workers, the need of the hour is documentation. State government must find out how to log people migrating out for work, people coming for work. There must be efforts at the Central and State levels to actively keep track of the people who are going elsewhere for jobs – if not for anything, to at least make sure that we never put them through such a harrowing fight for survival ever again.
107+ dead, hundreds injured trying to get home
The COVID-19 lockdown kicked in on March 24. By March 29, curated news reports showed that 22 migrant labourers were killed trying to walk back home, which included the death of a toddler who succumbed to starvation. On May 16, 24 migrant workers were killed in Auraiya, UP as a truck they were crammed into collided with another goods vehicle; hours after this was reported, five migrant workers died in another road accident in Madhya Pradesh.
While India tracks the number of COVID-19 deaths, every day migrant labourers lose their lives trying to get home. While the exodus began with unplanned restrictions being put in place, the migrant labour crisis has now exploded to a point where it is giving the COVID-19 death count a run for its money.
News reports of accidents since the lockdown show that over 100 migrant labourers and their families have been killed on train tracks or road accidents and hundreds of others have been injured. This, of course, includes the horrific incident in Maharashtra where 14 migrant labourers were crushed to death
by a goods train as they stopped for rest on the tracks. According to Savelife Foundation, 67 migrant workers had been killed in accidents till May 10 and over 150 had been injured.
But in the one week since then, over 34 have died in around six to seven different accidents.
And what is more shocking is that more than 700 people have now died in the fallout of the COVID-19 lockdown. This includes migrant workers who have committed suicide after being laid-off and left to fend for themselves. Just as of May 8, over 40 people had committed suicide out of job uncertainty and financial distress.
Yet, they keep walking. Many have said that all they want is to be with their families because the cities are not providing them with rations, money or rights. Almost every single migrant worker who is walking home is doing so because they know that they will die of starvation in the cities if they do not do it.
Despite the harrowing scenes that India has seen in the last few weeks, the government seems to invisibilise their distress and more significantly, tries to club them all into a single category of India's poor. However, what is clear is that these migrant workers risking their lives to get home cannot bunched into such a category. They are extremely proud, ambitious people who had started off from their villages and hometowns to make a life worth living – for themselves.
They did not come to our cities looking to live off charity as most would like think. They came here to work their way to building the
life they dreamed of – unfortunately, as the crisis goes to show, all they managed to build was the dream homes and office spaces for our privileged.