The nation-wide lockdown was announced on 24th March; 2020. 7 weeks have gone by and the miseries of migrant workers have exacerbated to a great extent. With the pictures and videos of migrant workers in the lockdown surfaced all over the internet, no one can deny or ignore their miseries. The 7-weeks lockdown journey of migrant workers, who are the backbone of Indian economy, showed how much apathy the society and government had for them.
In the beginning, the migrant workers rushed back to their home States in crowded buses and trains but due to the nation-wide lockdown, buses and trains ceased to operate shortly afterwards. When buses and trains ceased to operate, the migrant workers in large numbers decided to walk on their feet thousands of miles to reach to their families back in their home States. The State governments then quarantined the migrant workers who walked back on feet in the camp settings at the state borders. The camp settings established by State Governments provided shelter, food, water and other essentials to only 20% of the migrant workers’ population. Hence, a considerable population of migrant workers are still deprived of the relief provided by the government. The remaining migrant workers are either living in construction sites, parks, school-turned shelter homes, etc. Some migrant workers in the camp settings as well do not get food, water, and other essentials.
What exacerbated their miseries, even more, is the apathy that the government and society had for them all these years. Not all the migrant workers walked back to their home States, some of them died on their journey itself. Numerous incidents have surfaced over the internet where the migrant workers die of sunstroke, run over by a truck, car or train, and other forms of accidents. These incidents cost the lives of those migrant workers who were the backbone of the Indian economy. The Governments have been trying for the revival of the economic activities but how is the economy supposed to grow without the migrant workers.
A migrant worker, named Vipin Singh was walking back with his family to return to his village in Sitapur District of Uttar Pradesh. He was walking a few steps ahead of everyone and was killed when a canter truck ran over him on Jharsa flyover during the night of 12th May; 2020. The victim’s body after the autopsy was handed over to the family, following which the family returned to UP in an ambulance. Though the family was successful in reaching their home State way before they expected, but at the cost of one of the breadwinners of their family. Children of the victim migrant worker lost their father and will now have to struggle for their survival along with their widowed mother. Such incidents clearly show that while announcing the nation-wide lockdown, all that the government had for migrant workers was apathy.
On 8th May; 2020, 16 migrant workers were run over by a goods train when they headed towards Aurangabad Railway Station to catch trains for Madhya Pradesh. They were walking by the side of railway tracks due to the fear of braving police lathis. After a while, they were exhausted and hence, decide to rest on the track and fell asleep. They didn’t know that trains are running. Little did they knew, that those were last few minutes of their already miserable lives.
A report published by Save Life Foundation mentioned that 140 people have died in road accidents since the beginning of the lockdown from 24th March; 2020 out of which 30% were the migrant workers who were returning to their home States on feet. Hence, a total of 42 migrant workers died in road accidents since the lockdown.
While the number of deaths of migrant workers rises every day, migrant women have shown courage and are brave enough to give birth even during the lockdown. A pregnant migrant woman was walking back to Chattisgarh and gave birth to a baby girl on NH-44 in Medak district. After the police officials of Narsingi police station got to know about it, they reached the spot immediately and shifted the women and her newborn to Ramyapet hospital. Another incident in which a migrant woman named Deepa who was travelling with her husband and 3 kids, gave birth to a baby boy in Madhya Pradesh in the Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh with the help of another woman. Dr. Faizal Ali, a physician in Ojhar reached to the spot immediately after he was informed of the incident, but the woman already delivered the baby by then, at the side of Mumbai-Agra Highway or NH3.
Thus, migrant women did brave the harsh circumstances and yet gave birth to new lives even without the help of doctors. On one hand, it has shown how much courage migrant women have to deal with harsh circumstances and on the other hand, it shows the level of apathy of the government while not arranging medical personnel for migrant workers who travel back to their home States. Every plan of the government concerned about the welfare of migrant workers had some drawbacks.
Loopholes in the Measures adopted by the Government
India’s Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, in his speech on 12th May; 2020 expressed sympathy for the migrant workers of the nation and announced Rs. 20,00,000 crores package which will also cater to the welfare of the migrant workers. On 14th May; 2020, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed the media and provided specific details about how the Union government has planned to allocate the budget for the welfare of migrant workers. Apart from these measures lately adopted by the Union Government, State governments received orders from the Centre to establish shelter camps for migrant workers who were travelling back to their villages on feet and quarantine them to contain the spread of COVID-19 after few days of the announcement of national lockdown. The Union and State governments, along with Good Samaritans and NGOs have provided relief to the migrant workers in the camp settings. Food supplies, water and other essential supplies were provided to the migrant workers in the camp settings. The Centre and State Governments launched many schemes during the lockdown to mitigate the hardships of the migrant workers in both camp and non-camp settings. Ministry of Railways even facilitated the return of migrant workers back to their home States by running Special Shramik trains for migrant workers, students, pilgrims, etc.
Union and State Governments adopted numerous measures to mitigate the hardships of migrant workers but failed miserably in their attempts. Every measure adopted by either the Union Government or the State Governments had some loophole due to which the migrant workers did not receive the so-called “welfare” that the Governments have been promising continuously since the beginning of the national lockdown. The measures adopted by the Government did not prove beneficial to a considerable portion of the migrant workers and hence, are now for the namesake only.
The camp settings set up at the state borders did provide accommodation to only 20% of the migrant workers. Schemes were launched by governments to provide food, water, and other essentials to migrant workers in camp settings but very few of them knew about how to get access to the benefits of such schemes. The Government did not think of migrant workers who did not walk on their feet because of the meagre savings which would not last too long. The Government and NGOs as well ignored the migrant workers in non-camp settings. Previously, an order was released that buses will be used for inter-state movement of migrant workers. This decision had two drawbacks: The prices of the bus tickets were exorbitant and it would take years to move lakhs of migrant workers through buses. Then, the Railways Ministry decided to operate Shramik trains for the movement of migrant workers but the passengers needed to purchase tickets. It is inhumane to expect a migrant worker to pay for his journey to his home State when his family survives on the relief provided by the Government or NGOs. Unable to book train tickets, migrant workers decided to start their journey on foot.
Apart from this, some of the State Governments even decided to suspend key labour laws or amend them to encourage more investment into the economy and generation of employment opportunities for migrant workers. However, employment opportunities generated as a result of the suspension of key labour laws will only lead to exploitation of workers’ class. Hence, such decisions may lead to more investment in the economy but the workers’ will be the subject of exploitation and labour abuses by their employers or contractors.
Most Migrant workers have no other option than to walk back thousands of miles to their home States even with blisters at the bottom of their feet. Their miseries are the result of the apathy of the Government and society. The plight of migrant workers will exacerbate even more in the near future because of the failed attempts of the government to provide relief and mitigate their hardships. Post-lockdown migrant workers will be the subject of exploitation and abuse at the workplace because of the suspension or amendment in the key labour laws of States. Hence, even after the lockdown, the backbone of the Indian economy will not be strong enough.
Article Written By- Muskan Sharma
Law Student– Jamia Milia Islimia
(HRDI Work From Home Internship)
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