CORONAVIRUS INDIA MigrantWORKERS 1585123996

Sorry, we have run out of all words today, National Shame”, said the front page headline of Mumbai Mirror, a sister publication of Times of India, on the horrific killings of 16 migrant workers who were walking back to their homes in Madhya Pradesh nearly 800 kilometers away. Most of the ‘walkers’ are doing that in the night as the day time temperature is too high to bear with and hence they feel walking in the night was easier but then they have the biggest threat from the rash driving by the people who too prefer night. So far nearly 380 migrant workers have been killed due to accidents or hunger. The crisis is aggravating daily.

There is no way out for the poor. For the two month, during the complete lock down, they did not have other option other than to return but there were no services available to them. Without their wages, they struggled hard. Poor workers had no luxury of ‘social distancing’, a term being ‘popularised’ world over by the corporate sponsored medico-guides. In a country where people do not have access to potable water and space to live, talking about this is pure hypocrisy. Mumbai’s Dharavi slums have the largest number of immigrants from different part of the country and today it is struggling to maintain that ‘social distance’. Till yesterday, this slum alone has over 1061 positive cases and 31 deaths.

In the absence of any direct assistance from the government, the migrant workers were compelled to return to their home. Many ran out of their savings as cost of local travels as well as other things went high. As there was no control on these things, poor families were depended on their money from parents back home.

“We have been feeding ourselves using money sent from home. At the railway station, police cane us…some even demanded money…to let us board the train even though our registration was complete 12 days ago. With no way out, we decided to go home on a bicycle. Not sure if we will reach home or die along the way.”

As Brij Kishore (21) expresses his fear and helplessness at Punjab’s Phagwara, he had already travelled 150 km, with nearly 1,500 km yet to cover to reach his home in Bathani Tola village of Bihar’s Bhojpur district.[i]

At many places the police wielded batons on the hapless migrants who were with their children and faced the trauma along with their female wards. On the one side they had the absolute brutality of the police and administration as if they were ‘spreading’ the virus. There was no protocol in place to deal with them. Though every district had made provisions for quarantining the people coming from outside, yet the overjealous staff went out of their way to humiliate them. It was good that sanitary staff was told to disinfect various places but what is deeply disturbing that they sprayed the ‘disinfect’ on the migrant workers who had come to a certain place. After lots of noise in the media the government expressed the shock and send guidelines but such thing happens on regular intervals.

“The district magistrate of Bareilly, Nitish Kumar, tweeted that while the Municipal Corporation and local fire service were under orders to sanitise buses, they were “overzealous” in spraying the migrant workers directly.

The incident sparked outrage online, with many turning to social media to condemn it. A Twitter user wrote: “Who r u trying to kill, Corona or humans? Migrant labourers and their families were forced to take bath in chemical solution upon their entry in Bareilly”[ii]

The government’s orders and directives have always been ambiguous related to the issue of salaries, wages and compensation.  The Prime minister has spoken on various occasions after the lock down. He ask people do ‘respect’ elders, health workers, doctors and many more things which is appreciable but not a single word about how the government would resolve it. Many of the business persons and industries categorically said that they were not in a position to pay to the workers. The delay in a categorical response compelled people to make their own plan even at the cost of their lives. According to a report in The Print,  “On 29 March, the home ministry made it legally compulsory for salaries and wages to be paid even during the lockdown period. Yet, many of our disgraceful capitalists didn’t even pay wages for the month of March, not even for the days the labourers had worked. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, a survey found 63 per cent labourers hadn’t been paid wages they were owed from before the lockdown. In Gujarat, the diamond industry hasn’t been paying workers despite repeated government orders. Governments, NGOs, middle-class volunteers, political parties and even the police have been busy feeding migrant workers meals. Yet this charity, this munificence, would not have been needed if employers hadn’t abdicated their responsibility. These employers are mostly small businessmen and they also seem to be rather small-minded. They are your ‘micro, small and medium enterprises’ or MSMEs. These capitalists have refused to bear the cost of paying even a month’s wages to migrant labourers who are the engine of their economic enterprises[iii].

The crisis is unprecedented. With factories closed and workers returning to their homeland in desperation, the World Bank estimated that the lock down would impact the lives of nearly 40 million internal migrants. As per their estimates around  “50,000-60,000 moved from urban centers to rural areas of origin in the span of a few days, the bank said in a report released on Wednesday. According to the report — ‘COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens’ — the magnitude of internal migration is about two-and-a-half times that of international migration. In India, the number of low-skilled emigrants seeking mandatory clearance for emigration rose slightly by 8% to 3,68,048 in 2019[iv].

Train tickets for migrants and buses expenses

The supreme irony of the current crisis is the absolute antipathy on part of the government towards these migrants. Except for the first case of bringing people back from Wuhan, China on January 31st and February 2nd by Air India flight, the government’s ‘evacuation’ mission are actually charging people and definitely they seem to be higher than any normal time price. For the poor labours, there is no concession despite lot of noise made by the government. Some political parties promised to pay while some state governments too said that they would pay for the train fare for these poor migrants. The government promised to start some trains after lots of noise in the third phase of lock down when migrants started walking after deep distress but to their utter shock people have been virtually looted by petty taxi owners, private operators and trucks who ever had the opportunity to do so.

There was no concession in the train services. Moreover, for the ‘middle classes’, they started AC trains whose fare was equivalent to Rajdhani Express which has the highest fare among train services. A news report in the Times Now, news channel says, “ The Uttar Pradesh government-authorised private bus operators, to evacuate those trying to flee Delhi-NCR, are charing the poor migrants three to four times of the actual fare. The development comes hours after Yogi Adityanath’s government said it had arranged for 1,000 buses to ferry such people in view of the absence of public transport after the lockdown was imposed. On the Delhi-Ghaziabad border, passengers were charged Rs 1,000 per seat for a 300-400 km journey”.[v]

When the workers started returning in distress and desperation, after the third phase of lock down was announced, some builders in India’s tech city Banguluru, met the chief minister asking them to put pressure on the railways to cancel the train ‘ Shramik Express’ specially meant to carry these labourers who wanted to return. This was shocking and reflected how the state felt about these workers, perhaps no more than the bonded labors.

After much criticism, the state government decided to allow the migrant workers to go back their home and also facilitate the workers of the state too and facilitate their return but here too, the government was absolutely insensitive and said that “ Karnataka will take only the usual one way fare from the migrant workers returning to the state who opt to travel by the state transport buses to reach their villages, even as the number of passengers in the vehicles will be half the usual numbers to maintain social distancing norms amid Covid-19 lockdown”[vi].

The Prime Minister of India announced a ‘big package’ of Rs 20, lakh crore i.e. Rs 2 million Crore to revive the economy and to help the Medium and Small Scale Industries but a careful understanding of it reflect that it is more about playing with data and figures. The whole process does not even speak about a single penny about those in distress. It would have been better for the government to announce an absolutely free commuting package for all from the beginning and so many deaths would have been avoided. Now, people have lost all trust from the government structure and it is also true that they don’t have money to pay hence they are either walking back or going through their own private vehicles or even cycles without knowing the consequences of the entire journey.

Farmers forced to follow the government diktats

Lock down has also created deep distress among the farmers. This is now middle of May and many of the Indian states facing incessant rains too. Normal monsoon season is middle of May or end of May in Kerala while it reach to Delhi or to the north of India by June end. In many places farmers were forced to abandon their crop and compelled to destroy it as there were no market for them. Ironically, they know it well, nothing to expect from the government.

‘ We are helpless. The produce cant be taken to any market and it is wasting the fields.  We have now begin to clear the field for the next harvest. We don’t expect the government to compensate us and are left with no choice then destroying it’, said a farmer in district Shamli, Uttar Pradesh”[vii].

Unfortunately, the response from the government has not been of that level as it deserve. It may be possible that government do a direct cash transfer to some of the farmers but in this entire exercise the agrarian workers are left penniless as the land is not in their name. It is also true that governments are using this calamity as opportunity to push their privatization agenda and hence every action reflect a deeply flawed approach towards that. In the Indian state of Telangana, which is southern part of India, the state government has brought out a law for farmers to cultivate the crop as per the advice of the government. While attempt to provide farmers better infrastructure as well as professional know how is welcome but compelling them to opt for the crop of the government choice is fundamentally dangerous and absolute authoritarian in nature.

The new law suggests that those farmers who do not follow the government ‘advise’ will be barred from receiving government subsidy or support.

“ The state’s new agriculture policy aims at making farming profitable and area of cultivation for every crop will be determined so that there is no glut, Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao (RAO) has announced. Telangana becomes the first state in the country to enforce regulation that will ensure a “glut free” produce.

To make the implementation of the agriculture policy a success, the government will pay minimum support price (MSP) for only those crops cultivated on its suggestion and other farmers may even be denied the benefits of the ‘Rythu Bandhu’ scheme that grants farmers Rs 8000 per acre per year for purchase of seed, etc.”[viii]

Farmers are in deep distress but there is not enough that the government is doing except a political decision to pay them ₹6,000 (approximately USD 80) annually under PM Kisan and that too is given in various installment. The first installment will be disbursed now for Rs 2000/- . The government says that this action will immediately benefit 8.69-crore farmers in India.

Labor laws abolished

When the country is planning to return to normalcy and the issue of the distress migration has now emerged powerfully. We need to understand as why are migrants going back to their home when the State is planning to lift the lock down. The fact is that last two months, since India went for a lock down i.e. May 22nd, 2020 ( the first day was termed as ‘Janata Curfew’ but actually it was the way forward to lock down. Many states had already decided on the same day that they would continue with it. Formally, Prime Minister announced lock down from March 27th). Till date, the conditions of these migrants have deterioted and they have faced the worst form of discrimination, a feeling of alienation and unwatnedness to the places where they devoted their lives. They are city builders and yet there was little botheration. While so many announcements were being made, there was no effort to assuage their feeling or extending a direct help to them in the form of free passage to their home or cash transfer.

Amidst all this, the states have started using this period to push their own agenda. Tragic part is that the vulnerabilities of the poor are being increased deliberately and they are pushed to darkness. So, state after states are now amending their labour laws to ‘help’ the industries particularly Media and Small Scale Industries but helping the industries does not mean violating the rights of the labour which India is duty bound to follow the International labour laws as it is a signatory to ILO convention No 144 on the same as India is a signatory to it and states are bound by the ratification.

We never thought that to help the industries, the government would seek to increase the working hours for the laborers from 8 hours to 12 hours and that too without any compensation for the same. If the working hours are being increased then the compensation for additional four hours should be equal to one day wages. Rather than working to ensure for smoothening the law, it gave a handle to corporate to dismiss the workers without any notice. These withdrawal of labor act will kill the labour and convert them into a slave labour where they cant ask for additional money for extra work and can be dismissed at will if they speak against it. Various trade unions including that belonging to the ruling party has opposed this legislation and asked the government to withdraw it or amend it.

“Uttar Pradesh labour minister Swamy Prasad Maurya told India Today TV in an interview, “CM Yogi Adityanath wants to ensure that new and existing businesses and industries flourish and do not get tangled in legal battles. To ensure this, we have decided to temporarily exempt industries and businesses from the purview of some labour laws for 1,000 days. But laws, meant to uphold the rights of the labourers and are in their favour will not be exempted.

“It seems the government is capitalising on the desperate situation of workers during the COVID 19 pandemic,” says K R Shyam Sundar, Professor in Human Resource Management at XLRI Jamshedpur. He says since economy is down, government is using this as an opportunity to reduce the bargaining power of trade unions. “It is an extremely misguided logic that labour law rigidity is the solution for all economic problems. The government needs to think of human development index, infrastructural facilities, literacy rate amongst many other things,” he says”.[ix]

Towards Corporatisation

As our analysis points out that in these critical times too political class want to ensure more privatization. There are various committees of the government which are not keen of speaking to the stake holders but more with the business. Now, reports are coming that a Group of Ministers have prepared a draft which will pave the way for corporatization of land. In fact prime minister emphasized in his speech ‘ Land’ which never meant Land Reform for the poorest of the poor but land for the industries and private. Now, all the government dole out package is going to ensure that public land might go to private hence we will have to carefully study all the ‘dreams’ which the government want to sale to the people.

“The GoM, headed by Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, was created last week. It is now ready with the draft proposals, which will be approved on Thursday before being sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sources said. The draft proposes that the land pooling model which is used in building greenfield airports can be used in agriculture to enable corporatisation, which will create demand for skilled labourers[x]”.

Need to provide immediate emergency assistance

It is time for the government to procure more and distribute the grains that it has in its Go downs. It will help people in distress and resolve a lot of issues while also help the farmers.

As per the official data, the government has 58.49 million tonnes (mt) of foodgrain in FCI godowns — 30.97 mt of rice and 27.52 mt of wheat. The foodgrain stock is much higher than the required reserve norm of 21 mt as on April 1.[xi]

According to Dr Raghuram Rajan, former Governor of Reserve Bank of India, we need to have Rs 65,000 crore for providing relief to the poor. While the Prime Minister has announced a huge package of Rs 20,000000 Crore, it is still not categorical on many things particularly as far as the poor and the farmers are concern. Most of these are indirect support particularly to the industries in terms of delay in interest rates and for the middle class salaried workers in terms of their Income Tax refunds. It does not have anything specific for the poor.  All those who are paying hefty sum to take a bus or a train or a private vehicle are compelled to pay heavily much beyond their capacity to do so and the government would have done all the transportation free of cost to instill confidence among the people yet it did not do so.

Big Industries still enjoying the big wave off

A journalist activist Saket Gokhale filed an RTI with the Reserve Bank of India. Despite all efforts, government of India was refusing to inform to the Parliament and to the people details about the big defaulters of various banks. It is because of their crookedness, many banks collapsed and money of the poor or middle classes was completely wiped off.

“ Outstanding loans amounting to ₹68,607 crore of top 50 wilful bank loan defaulters in the country including firms of Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya have been technically written off till September 30, 2019, the Reserve Bank of India said in a RTI reply. Absconding dimantaire Choksi’s company Gitanjali Gems tops the list of these defaulters with a whopping amount of ₹5,492 crore, according to the list.

This is followed by REI Agro with ₹4,314 crore and Winsome Diamonds with ₹4,076 crore. Rotomac Global Private Limited has funded advances of ₹2,850 crore which have been technically written off and Kudos Chemie Ltd with ₹2,326 crore, Ruchi Soya Industries Limited, now owned by Ramdev’s Patanjali, with ₹2,212 crore and Zoom Developers Pvt Ltd with ₹2,012 crore being the other companies.” [xii]

Priorities of the government

The government want to go with Central Visa Plan with a budget of Rs 20,000 which

“seeks to redevelop and reconstruct several historic buildings in a four-square-km area from the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate. The five plots for which the land use has been amended include where a new parliament house is proposed to be constructed, adjacent to the existing building, and another on which the new prime minister’s residence is to come up.”[xiii]

The second priority in these hours of crisis is to have a luxurious aircraft for the Prime Minister and the President which is budgeted around Rs 8,5480 crore. The government will buy two aircraft for the top government functionaries. It is not that they don’t have but now they wish to take India into 21st century and feel they deserve better.

There have been demand by rights group as well as those work on protecting heritage that the New Delhi Vista Project is absolutely destructive and is not required when the nation want to focus on dealing with Corona and its impact on our economy. This is sad that despite all criticism, government want to go ahead with its projects.

Understanding the migrants and their identity

Many social scientists are speaking about the ‘class’ discrimination in India when they look at the current ‘migrant’ crisis but the fact is a majority of these informal sector workers belong to Dalit, OBCs, Adivasis and nomadic communities. Migration to cities has been a historical phenomenon for many of these communities who face the tyranny of the caste structure openly visible in our villages. A large number of them used to work with the feudal lords who would not pay them according to minimum wages and would hurt their self respect and dignity. To protect themselves from the humiliation of the hierarchical caste elite in the villages, who are powerful because of their control over all the food producing resources particularly land and farming, these communities migrate to cities under the feeling that there people would not immediately judge them from their caste identity. Many of them would hide that because the urban spaces in India have not become secular and liberal. Instead, in the past few years, these spaces have become more conservative, fanatic and rigid and obsessed with their caste identities.

Having worked with a large number of those communities such as Mushahars, doms, and Swachchakars, I can vouch that these are the communities remain at the margin because of their caste identities and are absolutely landless as well as homeless.

If they assert or don’t do their ‘traditional’ work or if there is any young boy or girl, who don’t want to follow their traditional ‘occupation’, they face economic boycott as well as physical violence. Most of the time, cases are never filed let alone any investigation on these caste violence even when ‘enough laws are there. In the fight against Corona, we clapped for the doctors and other health workers. How many of us know that the sanitation work belong to one community which is untouchable in India. This community of Swachchkaars lives in most humiliating condition and a large number of its youth die in cleaning the sewage system in our cities. The community faces untouchability not merely from the upper castes and upper elites but also with in the Dalit communities too.  We are asked to ‘respect’ the sanitation workers but have we ever thought of what is the salary being given to them? Whether they have social security for them?  How many of them died and what was the compensation given to them.

My understanding and work with them showed that they would work independently on their land rather than working at someone else’s domestic. Women among them prefer this and enjoy the freedom and respect the ownership of land give to them. Even a small piece of land has brought huge changes in the lives of people and protected them from humiliation and exploitation.

Protect nature and promote local food culture

Migration to cities increased because of caste violence in our villages and that resulted in the migrant becoming more vulnerable. There is a trend in Indian cities and states to give employment to ‘outsiders’ in the informal sector. The reason is that these ‘outsiders’ are mostly people from Dalit Adivasi communities and under deeply vulnerable circumstances they escape to cities to protect themselves from the caste humiliation and hence they are ready to work in less money to get work. Hence migration happened because of failed land reforms or to say it categorically because the Caste Hindus were never really interested in the empowerment of the marginalized communities. A Land Reform in the villages would have altered the existing power equations in the villages for which our caste supremacists won’t ever agree and therefore most of these landless have no other option to migrate to cities to save themselves from harassment and humiliation. Now, the order of migration is reverse, we will have to focus on radical land reforms, access to common property resources for not only ensuring dignity to India’s indigenous people like Dalits and Adivasis but also democratization of our society which is needed to protect our political democracy. Current crisis has given us an opportunity to undo the historical wrongs and work for an eco-culture which respects not merely dignity of human being but work to protect environment and work in complete harmony with nature. It is understandable that current crisis happened due to exploitation of nature and attempting to build a food mono culture all over the world. For years, indigenous people have survived because of their local knowledge system and food culture. We need to take a few lessons from them. Once agriculture is being developed for ‘commercial’ purposes or if we take it to corporatization, we will be exploiting our natural resources and only move towards the food mono culture. The alternative to current monopoly culture is to opt for radical land reforms, give land to landless and allow them build their family farming tree. For the future of our survival, agriculture needs to be part of life and not part of corporate. If we do not learn our lessons from this crisis, humanity will not survive. Corporatization means exploitation of our natural wealth or national or international wealth which we need to protect. Exploitation of natural resources has created huge climate crisis and if we have to protect humanity from these catastrophes, it is essential to delink agriculture from corporatization and allow it a mean to diversify through diverse community practices. A Comprehensive Agrarian Reform is the only way to protect nature as well as overcome poverty but if it became a mean to give corporate a control or monopoly to our food producing resources then none can save us from the revenge of the nature. Time for quick pro people action and the world will be better for ever.

References

[i] (Indian Express : https://indianexpress.com/article/india/migrant-crisis-coronavirus-india-lockdownnot-sure-if-well-reach-home-or-die-on-way-6407046/

[ii]  https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/indian-migrant-workers-sprayed-disinfectant-chemical-200406104936658.html

[iii] ( Shivam Viz : The Quint : https://theprint.in/opinion/indias-heartless-capitalists-deserve-the-labour-shortages-they-are-about-to-be-hit-with/418845/

[iv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/lockdown-in-india-has-impacted-40-million-internal-migrants-world-bank/article31411618.ece)

[v]  https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/covid-19-lockdown-shocker-up-private-buses-charge-migrants-rs-1000-for-300-km-journey/570773

[vi] (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/karnataka-govt-to-charge-one-way-bus-fare-from-migrants-returning-to-state/story-wnjXZY608B46P2S2uyn5eJ.html )

[vii] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/meerut/hit-by-lockdown-disappointed-vegetable-growers-in-west-up-destroy-standing-crop/articleshow/75542419.cms

[viii] (https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/now-telangana-farmers-can-only-grow-what-government-wants-84325)

[ix] (https://www.businesstoday.in/bt-buzz/news/bt-buzz-why-uttar-pradesh-labour-law-ordinance-is-unconstitutional/story/403509.html

[x] (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/panel-proposes-land-pooling-to-corporatise-agri-merging-mnrega-with-skilling-programmes-6408812/)

[xi]  (https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/fm-announces-50-lakh-insurance-cover-for-health-workers/article31170696.ece}

[xii]  (https://www.livemint.com/news/india/over-rs-68-600-cr-loans-of-wilful-defaulters-written-off-rbi-in-rti-reply-11588076928813.html)

[xiii] https://thewire.in/government/central-vista-dda-land-use

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at www.manukhsi.blogspot.com twitter @freetohumanity Email: vbrawat@gmail.com


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