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Crisis Of The Migrant Workers In India

The reason for the massive failure of implementation the several well meaning directives was the lack of a system in place.

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Had it not been for COVID 19, one wonders whether migrants in the unorganised sector in India would have ever attracted social and political attention, sympathy and anger. A review of impact of Central Government’s directives for protection and safety of migrant workers are fairly revealing.

Two days after the Prime Minister of India announced the 21-day lockdown on 24th March,
On 26th March the Central Government announced the relief package under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana which ordered State Governments to use Building and Construction Workers’ Welfare funds to provide relief to construction workers.

On 28th March, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a letter to all States and Union Territories directing them to provide for ‘temporary accommodation, food, clothing and healthcare for homeless people, migrant labourers stranded due to lockdown and sheltered in relief camps under SDRF funds allocation.

On the same day, the MHA issues another notification authorities States to use State Disaster Response Funds for relief measures for migrant workers to set up relief camps along highways, to provide food and shelter to migrant workers returning to their domicile states.

Three days later, on 1st April, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issues another notification to address panic and distress amongst stranded migrant workers, wherein it recognises ‘the anxiety and fear building up within migrant workers’ and proposes a 13 point directive to establish safety and protection for migrant workers.

On 12th April, the MHA wrote to State Governments and UTs once again on 12th April reinforcing the same conditions in earlier directives on proper arrangements for food, clean drinking water, sanitation and also address their psychological conditions of panic, distress and anxiety in a humane manner.

On 16th April, 2020, the Cabinet Secretary wrote to all States/ UTs once again to ensure effective implementation of detailed guidelines issued by the MHA.

Had all these directives been followed and implemented, needless to say we would not have witnessed deaths of 20 migrants (and counting) on their way back home, not from COVID, but from hunger and exhaustion. We would not have witnessed images of pregnant women giving birth on the roads, we would not have read about workers sleeping on railway tracks and being run over for reasons unfathomable.

We have read and heard the rage and indignation over the neglect and abandonment from journalists, activists and people from all walks of life. Large and small NGOs, international and local, have been very active raising funds for food and essentials for these migrants, often using mainstream media footage for as visual content for their appeals. Few politicians, particularly those not in power at the centre or state governments, have critiqued political neglect and abandonment of these migrant workers and placed the blame squarely on all governments in power, more the central government. The few trains and buses services started to assist stranded migrant workers were painfully inadequate - and deliberately so, because the effort was to the migrants stay wherever they were. All of these directives and orders could not prevent the exodus of migrants who chose to brave walking hundreds of miles on foot, without food or water. They were willing to risk their lives and inexplicable suffering than be incarcerated in uninhabitable camps with poor services and very little support.

It would seem that the plight of 139 million migrants (according to 2011 census) is a sudden development, and that - prior to, or even at the time of announcing the lockdown, no governments - Centre, States or Union Territories, had deliberated on a plan for these migrant workers in the unorganised sector or poor people who were away from home and would be stranded wherever they were for weeks. It also seems that despite the several directives from the Central Government and even the Supreme Court ruling, several State Governments and Union Territories had either not followed them or taken adequate measures to implement them. Kerala was perhaps the sole exception who had made arrangements for its migrants - but it almost seems that it had not waited for central directives or Supreme Court rulings to do so.

What seems rather interesting is that no one has made any references to any policy or law on protection of interstate migrant workers in India. India has had a law on Interstate Migrant Workers’ Act since 1979 which aimed to regulate and monitor labour migration systems between states with the objective of protecting them from being exploited, enslaved or bonded. The 40 year law is perhaps one of the most poorly implemented legislations in the country and none of its provisions implemented by any state labour departments either in terms of enumeration of migrant labour in states, tracking their source and destinations, monitoring contractors, migration agents and employers recruiting and hiring migrant labour. On 23rd July, 2019, the Ministry of Labour and Employment introduced a new labour bill called The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 which subsumes replaces 13 labour laws relating to safety, health and working conditions including Factories Act, 1948; Mines Act, 1952; Dock Workers Act, 1986; Contract Labour Act, 1970; and Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979. The Bill was referred to a Standing Committee on 9th October, 2019 and the Committee produced its report on 11th February, 2020 with an explicit recommendation that that separate chapters should be included in the Code, specifying the safety, health and working conditions for interstate migrant workers, and plantation workers, respectively, because they were found to be inadequate in the present bill.

Interstate migrant workers were an afterthought for the Central and State Governments at best. Several directives have been issued and failed for their protection and safety because there was no system in place to mobilise, organise and coordinate for their protection and safety or repatriation to their homes. Had the labour departments and the Labour Ministry in the centre had an operational system of regulation and monitoring with employers, contractors and agents, it may have been easier to kickstart the implementation process.

The reason for the massive failure of implementation the several well meaning directives was the lack of a system in place. The OSH bill, as it is referred to, needs to ensure that it places responsibility of food, shelter and safety to migrant workers it may have employed in any condition of calamity or lockdown, it needs to place responsibilities of regulating, monitoring and coordinating onto state labour departments to track receiving and sending labour and provide migrants with services to respond to distress and violations of the provisions. But now, with Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajathan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab governments having chosen to suspend nearly all labour rights to encourage industries and investors to regain their losses, the fate of the migrant labour lies in the dark. It is both and opportunity and a critical need for the Ministry of Labour and Employment to revise the OSH Bill and include provisions to protect interstate migrant workers and all other workers from servitude and trafficking. Surely, using indentured labour cannot be the only way for India to survive economic strain of this lockdown, and the burden of reviving the economy cannot be the sole responsibility of the poor and marginal workers of the country.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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migrant workers

Roop Sen

The author is a researcher, facilitator, and an activist, and a co-founder of Sanjog, a non profit that works on social policy and legislation for marginalised populations. Sanjog is engaged in strengthening security of migrants and preventing human trafficking.

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