India’s Migrant Labour Crisis Can Devastate The Country

Their cries for help are muted, their tears not visible

Photo by Shahbaz Khan on Unsplash

What is happening?

There are millions of migrant labourers walking hundreds of miles from the big ungrateful cities back to their hometowns. They are making this treacherous journey with little to no food. It is heartbreaking to see some kids and infants treading this journey in the extreme heat.

While the Government has now started train services, there is still a substantial demand-supply gap between ‘what is being done’ and ‘what needs to be done’. The Government claims to have started more than 800 ‘Shramik Special’ trains to assist over 10 lakh migrants. But when you look at the registrations done by the migrants to return to their respective states this no. is way higher (approximately 50–60 lakhs).

Moreover, registration isn’t an easy process either. In some instances, enrollment requires you to go to the police station and wait in queue for more than 12–18 hours at a stretch. Also, in various places, people have to shell out money out of their pocket. People are travelling on foot, by cycle, auto-rickshaw and in goods carrier.

All lives matter

Why isn’t it being highlighted in mainstream media? Why their cries are falling on deaf ears? Why the Government seems so underprepared even after eight weeks into the lockdown? Why even the urban literate privileged class seem to care less about their struggles?

By classifying them as migrant labourers, we make them a distant second-class citizen of our country. They are the same people who drive us around in the city as cab drivers and auto drivers, unfortunately, today they are on foot. They are the same workers who built our homes which comfort us during this scorching summer, but they don’t have a roof on their head. They are the same cooks and helpers who work in the kitchens of the fancy restaurants we visit, today; they are struggling for even one meal a day. They are the same people who built the cities we proudly claim to be ours and call them immigrants — no doubt they are returning to their villages.

If we can’t help them in these crises, we don’t deserve their services when this crisis is over. They are the most vulnerable section of our society. They have zero employment protection; almost nil savings or investments and they can’t even afford to have a roof on their head. Today, they are on the brink of survival and are asking for our help. They are crying, they are tired, and they are desperate. We need to unite. Donate, Volunteer or Just spread this message around — do whatever you can to show your solidarity.

What triggered them to tread this journey alone?

When the administration fails them, they try to fend for themselves. Some avoid highways and take the interior longer routes to travel back home. Some hide in the goods container for days on end. When numerous attempts to evade the police fail, they are thrashed or lathi-charged as if this was all their fault. Is it really — what is a daily wage earner supposed to do when he has no job or money to survive? As published in this report by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), 75% of the migrant labourers in Mumbai have less than Rs 100 remaining — survival has become the name of the game. Even accessing a public toilet and bath costs Rs 5 to Rs 20 per person in cities like Mumbai. Hunger and desperation to go back home aren’t the only problems. They often live under the fear of police and administration. Humiliation and Intimidation make it even worse to ask for help.

But the police is not to be blamed either — they are only following the orders from the top. The police are overwhelmed too, working and patrolling for several weeks now without any break. When the orders come from the office of the highest authority, you follow.

There have been approximately 60 deaths of migrant labourers and several hundred injured so far in different states during this lockdown. They are dying due to train accidents, bus collisions, heat and starvation.

This number is only going to go up in the coming weeks. They died because of a virus deadlier than COVID-19 — they died because of our apathy and lack of concern.

What measures and steps have the Government taken to ease their pain?

Modi Government, in his megalomaniac style, announced a massive sum of Twenty lakh crore package which translates to $22.6 bn. Sounds like a big measure but it is just hollow marketing(and accounting) gimmick. What concerns the most is that it has remarkably few benefits to these migrant workers. There are no direct cash transfers to the poor who haven’t earned for the last two months and don’t have any other savings for survival. They are just offered loans and sermons.

The Government also announced free foodgrains worth $461 Mn — Is this sum enough to feed 800 million people? And even if it is, how will they ensure execution. The implementation will face several roadblocks. Many economists and activists say that many of these beneficiaries are either not registered under the food welfare schemes or lack proper documentation, i.e. ration card and Aadhar cards in their domiciled state. And this is the same Government that cancelled 30 Mn ration cards because they didn’t match the Aadhar biometrics.

As per the SWAN report, of the 2361 workers surveyed in Maharashtra, 96% didn’t receive any ration from the Government during the pandemic. And less than 2% received a direct cash benefit from the Government.

If the above points aren’t enough, the labour laws are suspended for three years in 3 BJP run states and weakened significantly in 9 other states. In some cases, the working hours will extend to 12 instead of 9 with no overtime. There is no provision for leaves, equal pay or retrenchment benefits. How are these so-called labour reforms going to help a migrant labourer in the future? It is introduced to help the gluttonous capitalist Lala’s (business owners) of the factory at the cost(read blood and sweat) of the minimum wage earner.

Forget Government, even their landlords and employers are no different. Times like these bring out either the best or the worst in us. In the case of small and medium enterprises, it definitely showed us the ugly side of capitalism. This profit-seeking, inhuman and apathetic businessman cares rat’s ass about the migrant workers. 80% of the migrant labourers in Maharashtra weren’t paid during the lockdown. In Tamil Nadu, this number goes up to 97%. Millions of people are being pushed below the poverty line.

Unfortunately, there are still several questions that are left unanswered and will unfold only with time. For instance, their pain and struggle doesn’t end once they reach their homes — how will they survive? Donations and help from the volunteers will soon run out. What happens then? Who will feed them if the relief measures don’t reach them? What happens to the economy when small businesses would resume but without the manpower?

But one thing is sure — The impact of this will be felt for years to come.

If demonetisation made a big dent to our economy, this crisis would cause a severe blow to the morale of our society.

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