StoriesAsia Speaks to Civil Society Groups to Ask What India Should Do to Mitigate the Migrant Crisis
Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across India started walking back to their homes on foot soon after the sudden announcement on March 24 about a 21-day nationwide lockdown to deal with the new coronavirus pandemic. That lockdown, as we get ready to publish this story has been extended to May 03. While some workers managed to reach their villages, the others remain stranded without basic amenities in and around the areas where they worked as the lockdown carries on.
The central and state governments seem to have little idea about how to deal with the crisis, which was foreseeable but was apparently ignored.
On March 30, local officials in northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Bareilly district publicly sprayed a group of arriving migrants with a disinfectant that is normally used to sanitise public transport. The District Magistrate of Bareilly, Nitish Kumar, later tweeted saying that the local officials’ action was “overzealous” and not part of the policy to tackle the spread of the COVID-19 disease.
In the city of Surat of western India’s Gujarat state, police used teargas to control hundreds of migrant labourers as they clashed with them demanding that they be allowed to return home. The protesting workers, most of whom are employed in the textile industry of Surat, were in extreme distress as they had lost their jobs and livelihood.
“Mere parivar ke paas gaon jana hai. Kaise bhi karke mujhe mere gaon chhod do (I want to go back home to my family. Please do whatever you can to help me reach my family),” a migrant worker wrote in a message sent on Twitter to a nonprofit group, Aajeevika Bureau, which seek to ensure security and dignity of communities dependent on migration and labour. The plea exemplifies the distress of millions of India’s migrant labourers who remain on the margins.
India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and state governments have announced relief measures. Still, they leave out 139 million internal migrant workers, according to a charter of demands released by Aajeevika Bureau and Working People’s Charter, which works for the welfare of working classes.
These economically deprived communities are also socially marginalised, as they include the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Muslims and Other Backward Classes, says the “Charter of Demands for Internal Migrant Workers During COVID-19 Pandemic,” pointing out that many of them may not have identity or domicile documents, or ration cards.
A study by Jan Sahas, a non-governmental organisation which seeks to empower communities, confirms that. The group spoke to 3,196 migrant construction workers amid the ongoing lockdown and found that one-fourth of them did not possess rations cards, or if they did, they didn’t have access to their cards at their current locations.
Further, a little less than half of them did not have any ration for the day, while a majority of the others had ration for less than two weeks. The survey also revealed that about one in 10 families had a member who was pregnant and that nearly half of those households didn’t have ration to sustain for a week.
Unable to return to his pregnant wife and child as police were beating up people moving outside, Aduram, a farm labourer stranded in Rajasthan state’s Jaisalmer district, who had been sitting under a tree for three days, wrote this message to Aajeevika Bureau: “Aap kuch bhi karke mujhe bhejo. Agar meri biwi ko kuch ho gaya toh kya Sarkar zimmedari legi (Send me back home please. Would the government take responsibility if anything happens to my wife)?” His family at home had nothing to eat.
Another migrant worker, Dolaram, from Baroliya, Gujarat, was beaten up by the Mumbai Police while attempting to leave the city, according to Aajeevika Bureau. He was taken back to his accommodation and locked up inside. He managed to escape and reach his home by an alternate route, which took him three days. His back was sore from bruises inflicted by the police.
Aajeevika Bureau and Working People’s Charter emphasise the need to provide free ration to all migrants without them having to produce identity or domicile documents.
In the destination states, migrants are not registered for the benefits that the state provides, the groups explain. The benefits go only to people having ration cards with domicile of the city.
Further, the cash transfers made by the government to poor households as part of a relief package are based on the lists of beneficiaries of government schemes where migrant workers don’t find a place, mostly due to procedural complexities, the charter states.
The Jan Sahas study also showed that the majority of the workers did not have information on how to assess the benefits of various schemes announced by central ministries and state governments. Only 5 per cent of them were aware of government provisions and how to evaluate them.
Moreover, while many governments have issued orders restricting landlords from evicting or demanding rent from migrants, there’s no fast-track legal aid and grievance-response system, the two groups point out.
The governments need to more widely disseminate information about its relief measures and also be more proactive in implementing those packages, rather than expecting the migrants to come to officials to meet their basic needs. And this needs to be done while letting go of documentation requirements so that relief reaches this “invisible population,” the charter pleads.
The Food Corporation of India and state governments have million tons of surplus wheat and rice in their stock. The central and state governments have the capacity to fulfil their constitutional duty to ensure the right to life of migrant workers without any discrimination.