After the lockdown was announced with a less-than four hour notice, lakhs of migrant workers left the places where they used to work to return to their villages or hometowns either on foot or in over-crowded buses, with bags perched on their heads and children in their arms.
India, is not yet among the worst affected countries of the world. But the migrant workers in India are surely among the worst affected migrant workers of the world.
Though the lockdown is an inconvenience for people belonging to middle-class and rich families, but for migrant workers, it is more than an inconvenience because of the apathy government has for migrant workers.
PM Modi announced the lockdown with no guidelines or other directions to deal with the migrant workers’ plight who are mostly the daily-wage earners. Their income just disappeared in air when the lockdown was announced suddenly.
Migrant laborers are the backbone of unorganised sector in India and make up to the 80% of India’s workforce. They construct multiplexes, malls, apartment blocks, hospitals and hotels. They work as delivery boys, rickshaw pullers, sell fruits and vegetables by the side of the road, factory hands, painters, loaders, etc.
This class of people often move to metropolitan and suburban localities in order to find work and mostly receive their wages or salary in cash. They do not leave a paper trail. Most of them work without contract or benefits.
The day lockdown was announced, migrant workers left the places where they came for better economic opportunities because they did not have enough resources at hand to survive with no income in their homes. In their hometowns, they had their own homes with their families so their was no need for them to pay rent plus they’ll get to eat something. However, as a result of lockdown, in few hours, no transportation was available to them to travel back to their villages and this left thousands of workers stranded at railway stations in different parts of the country. Also, it was reported that migrant workers tried to escape from cities to reach their villages through container trucks, but were caught by the police.
So, the migrant workers exercised the only option left for them to reach their homes i.e. to walk on feet. The Government did not expect this chaos and as a result of migrants moving on their feet to reach their homes, announced that district and state borders must be sealed and the migrants must be kept in atleast 14 days quarantine. However, the government was not prepared enough to deal with all the migrant workers and hence, needed support from NGOs and voluntary organisations to reduce the plight of migrant workers.
Though many State Governments arranged transportation for their migrant workers to come back to their villages with necessary guidelines to be followed like screening, etc. but it wasn’t enough because there are plenty of migrant workers still left at interstate borders.
The plight of migrant workers never received enough attention from the politicians. The lockdown is one such episode of this truth. The lockdown was a great blow to the workers who were already making it in their miserable lives. They are usually not part of the vote bank for the fact that they are registered as voters in their villages or hometowns but they work on election day and hence, are not able to cast their votes.
Unfortunately, migrant workers do not get access to welfare measures made available by the Government for the poors because such schemes can be availed usually at one’s place of birth whereas migrant workers keep moving in search of economic opportunities.
As the COVID-19 spread is out of control, many Governments have extended the lockdown which gives rise to a dilemma that is whether the migrant workers will die of COVID-19 or of hunger. A Bengali migrant construction worker who is currently living in the camp setting in Gaya, Bihar is suffering from emotional baggage that he is being fed, but his wife is pregnant and he cannot send any money to his parents in Bengal. He wishes that if he could reach his home, he would do something to earn money and surely will live with his parents and wife.
Also, the agricultural sector is also suffering due to the lack of availability of laborers because a great portion of workers is stuck in camp settings and non-camp settings at state borders. Farmers do not have workers to take their crops to market, there is no one to unload the trucks.
No one is really aware of whether or not COVID-19 has entered the rural India where 70% of the population lives. There are reports of neighbors rejecting migrants once they arrive home, as a result that they worry migrants may carry the virus. The plight of migrant workers was expressed better by a picture that surfaced over social media in which migrant workers and their children were being sprayed with bleach which is meant to sanitize buses.
However, it is not easy for the workers who stayed either because even if they are fed by the government, they are still supposed to pay their rents though there is a direction in place issued by government. Their landlords may not abide by the direction. Also, most of the migrant workers are either not aware of any welfare schemes made available by the government or do not know how to avail the benefit of such benefit schemes.
This is what migrant workers have suffered till now, but there will be more predicaments for them in the near future if the government does not act right enough to mitigate their problems.
Article Written By- Muskan Sharma
Law Student– Jamia Milia Islimia
(HRDI Work From Home Internship)
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