The announcement of lockdown on March 24, 2020 as a preventive step for spread of Corona brought to the forefront the issue of migrant workers. The migrant workers were left with four hours in which they had to take action. Millions of migrant workers were struck in their host states. They had come from home states in search of employment and were engaged as construction workers, daily wage labourers, street vendors, domestic workers in cities. With the announcement millions of workers were stranded in host states and had little means to move out.

An estimated 5-6 lakh decided to walk down on their way to home states. There were also cases, where hunger related deaths, deaths due to exhaustion and other illnesses arose. A large number into a few millions were still stuck in host states with no means to move out.

The report titled ’32 days and counting: Covid Lockdown, Migrant Workers and Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India’ by Stranded workers action network (SWAN) brings out the challenges of the migrant workers struck in host states, grassroots difficulties in providing relief measures, initiatives taken by SWAN and recommendations for improving the welfare of migrant workers.

The report by SWAN is not based on a survey of workers but a compilation of basic information gathered on challenges faced by stranded workers and action taken. This was as part of the larger efforts to accelerate the relief work by connecting workers with relief providing machinery. This included government, civil society organizations and others.

Data was gathered from 16,863 stranded workers spread over the states of Maharashtra (4,823), Karnataka (4,736), Uttar Pradesh (1,869) and Delhi (1,361). Of this, 59% were daily wage factory and construction workers, 11%  non-group based daily wage earners like drivers, domestic help and 16% were self-employed like street vendors, zari workers etc. The average wages were Rs. 380.  43% of those reached out were from Bihar, 27% from Jharkhand, 12% from Karnataka and 6% from West Bengal.

Distress of Migrant workers

Economists such as Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik, Jean Dreze and Social activists such as Harsh Mander had stressed the point that FCI godowns were surplus with food stocks. Against a norm to maintain 24 million tonnes of food grains, there was about 77 million tonnes of grains in the godowns. With Rabi grains, this was to be further increase by another 40 million tonnes. Holding the grains involves a larger cost instead of costs involved for distributing it. With surplus stocks available for distribution, they argue for distribution of food grains.

The report states, that despite the stocks available for distribution, the stranded workers faced the challenge of access to food grains. Food distress continues to be high, with 50% of the workers left with ration for less than one day and 72% left with ration for two days. 32 days down the lockdown, 4 out of 5 workers had not yet received government rations and 68% still did not have access to cooked food. Between two lockdown periods the situation improved due to reach out of workers to SWAN and better partnerships between local administration and civil society organisations. By 26th April, 76% in Maharashtra, 67% in Karnataka, 47% in Delhi and 52% in Haryana yet still did not have access to ration and food.

As per the Ministry of Finance relief measures, Rs. 1,500 were to be released in three equal monthly instalments. This by itself was meagre. The report states, the stranded migrants were short of cash. 64% had less than Rs. 100 left with them and 78% had less than Rs. 300 left. 97% had not received any cash relief from the government into their Jan Dhan accounts. About 46% SOS calls were received by SWAN indicating lack of money or food and called for food and cash support.

Only about 6% of the migrant workers by 26th April had received their full wages. 78% were not paid at all. 99% of the self-employed such as street vendors, rickshaw pullers did not have any earnings during this period. With large number having not been paid wages, they will have to stay back until it is cleared. Workers also feel that their wages might be deducted.

On decision to stay or leave in post-lockdown situation, 41% stated that they wanted to stay-back as they had to pay unpaid rent, loans and had no cash available to survive. About one-third wanted to go back home and about a quarter were unsure.  Among the 34% who wanted to go back home, 16% wanted to return back to host state later, 13% wanted work back in their hometown and 5% wanted to earn some money and leave.

The report talks of the coordination challenges between states where the migrants are stuck and their home states. A majority of the stranded workers are from states as Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Odisha and West Bengal. They were stranded in richer states as Karnataka, Maharashtra and Haryana. In crises situation, the state governments of Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand reached out to their people in host states. Home states tried to transfer cash to their people. However, host states took little initiatives in providing relief to workers.

In relation to extension of support, the escalation of challenges faced by migrant workers resulted in their receiving support by local administration and civil society organisations. Civil society organizations such as Aajeevika Bureau, Goa humanitarian helpline for workers in Goa, Yuva, Action aid, Jan arogya abhiyan, Rahmat Trust, Project grain basket, Rajasthan youth association, Centre for social education and development, United against hate campaign, Mahila kisan adhikar manch, Nagrik ekta manch, Peoples action for people in need,  Wish India, Karma sai bavishaya, Peoples union for civil liberties (PUCL) stepped into to provide rations to migrant workers in the host states. From government, local administration such as Bombay Municipal Corporation, Bruhat Bengaluru mahanagara palike, Mysuru City Corporation, labour comissionerate, local district administration including panchayat stepped in to provide relief. In relation to sanitation and hygiene, the migrants still face challenges.

There were other types of needs which were not covered under relief operations. For example, in a cash crunch situation, the migrants had to be dependent on paid toilet at Rs. 5 and paid bath at Rs. 20 in Mumbai. The nature of relief dependency also was different for groups such as pregnant mothers, little children, slum dwellers. Pregnant mothers and little children were in no position to go and receive food. There was no provision for milk for children. The need for immediate medical attention and medicine fell short. In relation to food provision, instances of workers not receiving food even after standing in queue for long hours, low quantity and quality of food being received were pointed out.

While cash was an immediate necessity for spending towards gas cylinders, milk, medicines, vegetables, phone recharge etc., these were unavailable. Demands for rent payments by landlords were also witnessed with the migrants. While relief material did require wheat flour, dal, rice, oil, salt, masalas and soap, during the lockdown period only dal and rice was provided. The need for money for meeting costs towards oil, salt and masalas fell short.

Recommendations

The report suggests need to ensure food security, providing wage compensation, and other social security nets. The report recommends drawing on the suggestions by economists and social activists such as Jayati ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik, John Dreze, Harsh Mander, Rohini pande, Simone Schaner, Charity troyer moore, Elena stacy in relation to cash compensation and food security.

In relation to food security, the report recommends doubling of provision of PDS rations for three months inclusive of cooking oil, pulses, salt, and masala in advance to all. Sanitary pads and soaps are also to be distributed along with food. Home delivery of food are to be ensured including that of medicines. Feeding centres are suggested to be continued till lockdown ends and migrants provided with two cooked meals per day. Clean drinking water and water for other purposes such as washing and bathing is to be provided in all colonies through water tanks.

Regarding wage compensation, emergency cash relief of Rs. 7,000 is to be provided for at least 3 months. Minimum wages are to be released into Jan dhan accounts. The state government is to pay full wages to workers in the informal sector during lockdown period as well as for three months following that. MGNREGA job card holders are to be paid full wages during lockdown period. Every employer is to pay wages. Livelihood support is also to be extended to stigmatised professions such as sex work, begging and domestic work.

In relation to social security, advance payment of upto double the pension amount is to be provided for six months. Full entitlements are to be provided to all eligible mothers under Pradhan mantra mathru vandana yojana and Janani suraksha yojana.

With regard to shelter and housing, hostels, relief camps and shelters, apart from large spaces such as stadiums, army cantonments were to be utilised for temporary stay of migrant workers, daily wage earners and others. No landlord were to force tenants to evict for two months beyond the lockdown. For segments such as street children, voluntary spaces in public colleges, army areas and stadiums were to be created.

For transportation of workers, the report suggests special trains to be started for movement of migrant workers into their home states. Full autonomy was to be provided to stranded labourers in deciding their travel plan.

On employment front, the report recommends increasing provisioning for work under MGNREGA by four times. It also calls for boosting employment opportunities in small towns through a sustainable urban employment guarantee programme.

Basing on the vulnerable situation of migrant works, daily wage labourers and all those engaged in informal sector, the report recommends the need to strengthen social security. National commission for enterprises in Unorganized sector (NCEUS) had started the discussion on social security for those in the unorganized sector and passed an act in 2008. The report suggests that Food security, healthcare, housing, maternity and old age benefits are the rights of workers and needed to be given priority. Social security should be treated as a right of the workers.

Commentary

Migrant workers always faced challenges. However, this received less attention of the Government. Lockdowns following COVID only has brought out the vulnerability of the migrant workers and placed it at the centre of national debate. The issues concerning their inclusion in decision making, schemes for enhancing their social security, need to look at social security beyond food and minimal wage to mean a decent wage, need for attention to working conditions of migrant workers, issues of shelter, water & sanitation are brought out.

The report unfolds the story of crises of the migrant workers. While the sudden lockdown announcement set the base for the migrant worker crises, the relief measures were meant to ameliorate their conditions. However, as the report brings out there were gaps between relief announcements and grassroots implementation. The inadequacy of relief measures pronounced as well as implementation challenges stress the need for improving on both fronts.

The report can provide good insights to those looking for understanding the situation of migrants in COVID lockdown context.

T Navin works with an NGO as a Researcher


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