Letter to the Prime Minister
Shri Narendra Modiji
Dear Shri Modiji,
I forward here a copy of my last letter dated 15-5-2020 and copies of the previous letters addressed to you on the excruciating problems faced by crores of the migrant workers across the length and the breadth of the country.
I am not sure whether my letters have been put up to you for your perusal, as I do not find any tangible response from the Centre by way of a satisfactory answer to the migrant workers’s woes, except a summary announcement made by the Finance Minister that the Centre would give them 5 kg of grains and 1 kg of pulses free for two months and the Centre’s intention to introduce “One Nation One Ration Card”. These measures do not address the immediate problem on hand.
As I had mentioned in my letter, the immediate requirement of the migrant workers is that they should be provided whatever mode of transport that is available in the country so that they may reach their home places in the shortest possible time. If NRIs can be provided special aircraft and Navy’s vessels, I do not see any reason that the migrant workers should be treated differentially.
Let me repeat that the migrant worker crisis has arisen because of the ill-planned decisions taken from time to time. The abrupt lockdown announcement threw them out of their employment. The employers left them in the lurch and many of them have not paid their back wages, leave alone provident fund contributions, gratuity etc. and even the cess payable under the Building and Other Constructions Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act.
When the workers were proceeding to move on towards their home places immediately after the lockdown was announced, for reasons best known to the Home Ministry, they were prevented from doing so, exposing them to all kinds of indignities iand an exposure to Corona virus. The States who were struggling for resources due from the Centre could not provide them adequate facilities in many places.
During the 2-month lockdown period, the workers could have been allowed to proceed in a calibrated manner but they were not allowed to do that. Once again, when the lockdown relaxations were announced equally abruptly, the Railways found it difficult to handle such a huge volume of traffic. There was overcrowding of the railway stations. Some Chief Ministers, under pressure from the contractors, many of whom had treated the workers earlier as bonded labour, went to the extent of cancelling the special trains, perhaps to perpetuate the bondage of the workers. Even now, the Shramik trains are moving on but, from what one finds from the TV reports, their train travel has not been without serious problems. As soon as they reach their destinations, they will be quarantined and it will take several days for them to rejoin their families.
There are crores of migrant workers who are still walking, going in trucks paying heavy charges and depending on local charity. Some migrant fishermen had even taken to the hazardous sea route along the east coast, risking their lives and spending their meagre incomes.
I have attached here a picture that was taken today at Visakhapatnam of a young migrant couple coming from the south and cycling all the way to Kolkatta, facing the severe summer conditions. The local NGOs did what the government (both the Centre and the State) ought to have done, that is, give them food, water and solace. The temperatures in many parts of the country have already started soaring in excess of 45 degrees C and I am not sure whether many of these workers will be able to withstand the severe weather conditions. No one has the right to force the migrant workers, especially the pregnant women and the children to walk in the summer heat, without proper nourishment and care. Should the Centre remain a passive spectator to what is going on?
As I had already pointed out, the Centre should know that “inter-State migration” and inter-State quarantine” are listed at Item 81 of the Union List of the Constitution. The Centre should therefore own full responsibility for the safe and the speedy return of each and every migrant worker in the country to his/ her home place. After all, it is these workers who have been contributing significantly to the growth of the economy and the well being of the nation.
As of now, both the Centre and the States have lost precious time in dealing with the immediate problems of the migrant workers. As the summer heat is increasing, any further inaction will prove disastrous. The only alternative that is available at this belated stage is for the Centre to seek the services of the Defence Forces who have the resources available and who have demonstrated time and again, during natural calamities, that they can evacuate such a large number of workers with a great deal of efficiency and care. They can provide excellent medical help that most workers are in need of, as the para-military services did admirably in the case of the Wuhan returnees. They can provide good quarantine facilities and, more important than everything else, they can give a sense of security to the otherwise abandoned workers. In extra-ordinary situations like this, such an extra-ordinary move is justified.
The movement of the migrant workers should have the highest priority in the transport sector and they should be given the Green Channel facility, without inter-State border stoppages that have so far acutely compounded the crisis. Whatever supplementary help that the Defence Forces may need should be provided unhesitatingly by the Centre and the States, the Central and the State PSUs.
As soon as the workers get back to their homes after the quarantine, they will have to be rehabilitated to regain their sustainable livelihoods. Both the Centre and the States should set aside their constant bickering and collectively put in place a comprehensive rehabilitation scheme for this.
Strangely, in some States, the laws in place for protecting the rights of the migrant workers have been suspended! This is unacceptable. The Centre should intervene and stop such a move.
Never before in the history of independent India, such a huge humanitarian crisis has been witnessed. As citizens of this country, we should hang our heads in shame.
Kindly act fast, act before the migrant workers fall prey to the heat of the summer.
I am sure that you will act urgently, with a sense of compassion and sensitivity in this matter.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI
Shri Narendra Modiji
Dear Shri Modiji,
Kindly refer to my letter dated 22-4-2020 addressed to you regarding the discriminatory treatment meted out to migrant workers. I have enclosed a copy of that letter for your ready reference.
As a part of the relief package for the migrant workers, the Finance Minister had announced yesterday that eight crore migrant workers would get 5 kg of grains and 1 kg of pulses free for two months. The Centre will apparently bear the cost of this, which amounts to Rs 3,500 Crores. The Centre also seems to be under the impression that the “one nation, one ration card” idea would solve all the problems of the migrant workers, though that presumes an integrated ration card data system at the national level. The Finance Minister had added the caveat that the States would be responsible for implementation, identification of migrants and distribution of rations. As usual, while the Centre makes such grand announcements, the States should bear the brunt!
I welcome the good intentions with which the above announcements are made. However, to what extent will they bring relief to the migrant workers?
The Centre seems to think that the migrant workers are all conveniently gathered in shelters where the States can readily reach them and hand over the rations. Had it been the case, the problem would have been far easier to tackle. Apparently, the Centre has no clear appreciation of where the migrant workers are located today and what kind of problems they are facing.
If the Centre had the time and inclination to depute its officers to traverse any highway connecting the work places in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, AP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi etc. to the home States of the migrant workers, namely, Odisha, Chattisgarh, MP, Bihar, W. Bengal and so on, they would have found thousands of workers in small groups, trudging along wearily, facing the harsh weather conditions, mostly facing starvation and occasionally getting harassed by the local officials. Unable to walk such long distances, some desperate individual workers have tried to squeeze themselves into container trucks and even cement concrete mixers (https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/14-migrant-labourers-found-crammed-in-cement-mixer-79594), only to be apprehended by the local police and subject to “investigation”. Some groups consist of pregnant women, children, even infants, carrying whatever meagre belongings they have. There have been instances of migrant women workers delivering babies and resuming their weary walk to their far off destinations.(https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pregnant-migrant-labourer-delivers-baby-while-walking-home-1677374-2020-05-), as though nothing had happened!. Rarely they get medical help. Occasionally, an individual or a philanthropic group provides them some limited help by way of food packets and water sachets.
The Centre should know that the migrant workers across the country have reached the end of their patience. Considering the harassment they have undergone for so many days, they are not in a position to wait indefinitely any longer. The need of the hour is to provide them immediately whatever mode of transport that is available.
Had the decision makers at the Centre and in the States planned the lockdown and the subsequent relaxations carefully, from the point of view of the migrant workers, who belong to the disadvantaged groups of the society, such a huge humanitarian crisis would not have reared its head.
Let me remind the Centre that the two related subjects of “inter-State migration and inter-State quarantine” are at Item 81 of the Union List. In other words, the Centre cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for dealing with the problems of the migrant workers and their welfare. The primary responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the migrant workers rests with the Centre.
Before announcing the relief package yesterday, I wish someone sensitive to the problems of the migrant workers had met them and enquired as to what they would need urgently. The first relief they need today is that they should be provided buses and trains (or even aircraft!!) to reach their destinations. On the way, they need food, potable water and other amenities. They need some cash that will compensate for the wage arrears, the wage losses and the avoidable expenditure they have had to incur during the last several difficult days of the lockdown restrictions. These are their urgent requirements.
When the Indians living abroad had to be brought back to India recently, did not the government go out of the way to arrange special aircraft and even Navy’s ships to be provided to them? Do the migrant workers stand on a different footing? Does it not amount to outright discrimination to ask them to fend for themselves and force them to walk back to their home villages? Is our society so fragmented that the benefits of relief packages should accrue only to the advantaged?
When the workers return to their home places, perhaps they will be quarantined, which, as per Item 81 of the Union list, falls within the purview of the Centre. They need to be provided quarantine facilities of a reasonable standard, comparable to those provided to the NRIs and the others. Thereafter, they need to be provided either employment or equivalent wages for some months till such time that they can get back on their feet. The Centre should join hands with the States to take up special rehabilitation projects for the migrant worker families in consultation with them.
There seems to be some hurry on the part of the Chief Ministers of some States to push the migrant workers back into the waiting hands of the builders and the contractors, treating the workers as readily available pawns on the chess-board of projects. This is unacceptable. It amounts to violation of the human rights of the workers. The migrant workers cannot be treated as bonded labour.
What about the statutory violations committed by those who employed the migrant workers at the time when the first lockdown restrictions were imposed all of a sudden? Should the erstwhile employers be allowed to go scot-free for not paying the wage arrears, not remitting the dues towards provident fund etc. and sacking the migrant workers without following the procedures? If the Centre and the States have any sensitivity, they should identify all the errant employers and act against them. What about the benefits due to each migrant worker from the cess collected under the Building and Other Constructions Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996? How does a migrant worker reaching his/her village get the benefit due to him/her for the work already done in a different State?
Some States have already started tinkering with the labour laws in the name of reform, including the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. I hope that this move will not take away the rights of the migrant workers.
I would appeal to the centre to deal with the problem of the migrant workers with compassion and sensitivity. The government should take note of the fact that the contributions made to the economy by the migrant workers, along with the others in the unorganised sector, are immense. The society cannot afford to ignore their problems and, in any effort to revive the economy, they should be accorded the highest priority.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI