The phones at the toll-free labour helpline in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district have not stopped ringing since the news of the total national lockdown. Hapless migrant workers from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as well from states further afield – UP, Bihar and Odisha – started to cling to trains and buses that would take them back to the relative safety of their far-flung villages. Thousands of these workers have not yet made it home. They have been stopped at sealed state borders or have been disembarked from buses or jeeps and are clueless about reaching home. Many more did not get the chance to leave cities in time and are now stuck in their overcrowded rooms or work sites – in panic and fear, and also now in growing hunger for there has been no work available for days. Stories from the ground signal the advent of desperate times -- workers stuck in informal settlements, hungry and jobless, as restaurants, roadside eateries and businesses have closed down. In many cases, even home states appear unwilling to take them in for fear of contagion.
The dismal picture mimics and once again brings alive the situation faced by people at the time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation. That time, we quickly overlooked the anguish of millions of informal-sector workers who lost their jobs on account of shutdowns and slow-downs. They live in congested, shared rooms in degraded slum areas or in the suffocating confines of their workplaces -- construction sites, factories and restaurants. They live and work in possibly the most informal, hazardous and low-paying conditions anywhere in the world. Much like refugees elsewhere in the world, migrants are beginning to take resort to the last option they have -- to walk back home. Apart from the immorality of leaving these workers stranded, this poses complex challenges in the fight against the pandemic.
First things first: Well over a 100 million of our rural people are in cities as the principal workforce. They are in every city that has work. These are the daily wage earners, self-employed casual workers, small vendors and service providers who, in the suddenness of lockdowns and sealed borders, will not have the basic necessities to survive. There isn’t enough food or even clean drinking water anywhere. Many of them may also have been evacuated from their living spaces – essentially work sites which shut down upon lockdown orders – and they may not have been paid their due wages on the vague promise of things becoming better. Providing free meals or groceries and vegetables is an absolute first. Schools, offices, night shelters and public spaces have to open up to accommodate migrant workers now adrift without safe places to live. While the Centre and state governments announce relief measures, they have been restricted to local populations with identity documents providing domicile status in the city. Migrants, who are unaccounted for in state and national statistics and consequently fall outside the purview of all state authorities, live in unrecognised settlements or worksites in the city, and cannot prove their eligibility through documentation, need to be taken into cognisance while designing relief measures. The universalisation of all relief measures, with no eligibility barriers, is an imperative at this hour.
Secondly, there’s an immediate need to protect wages and ensure that workers are not cheated out of their dues. Protection against wage denial, fraud and wrongful retrenchments will need more than the power of benevolent suggestion in the PM’s appeal. It will need application of law and delivery of justice through a deft legal response system which needs to be immediately put in place – and not be put in freeze because of the lockdown. The outcomes of denied wages and lost jobs will be as insidious, if not more, than the health threat facing this population.
Thirdly, and this needs to happen before corporate bail-outs start getting negotiated, we need to ensure that the delivery of social security measures is not suspended. In fact, these need to be prioritised for all highly impoverished rural areas that have high levels of wage labour dependence and migration -- an immediate determination and advance cash transfer of a universal basic income, restoration of MNREGA and clearance of MNREGA dues, increased PDS allocations with the full and purposeful inclusion of migrant workers and immediate payouts of pensions.
Fourthly, workers desperate to return home and now in transit must not be denied entry on their home borders. It is preposterous to push hapless workers back to the cities which they are fleeing out of uncertainty and panic. They can be screened at borders like the people returning from other countries were screened at the airports and the same protocols could be followed and precautions taken. Unqualified restriction on movement across borders is unfounded and is an infringement on their rights. Kerala, Maharashtra, UP and now Rajasthan are announcing emergency measures such as cash transfers and PDS for local workers and their families. The unique and urgent needs of migrant workers, however, will need unique and urgent responses over and above what is being currently imagined. To view them as mere vectors of disease is gross injustice. If anything, their limited mobility within cities, confined as they are in its squalor, has made them immensely vulnerable to diseases like tuberculosis, which takes a far more serious fatal toll. That needs escalated attention.
Ensuring that they remain safe and secure both physically and economically calls for a response that transcends all bureaucratic norms that will restrict their access to services such as identity or domicile documents. To have millions of workers stranded at state borders signals a systemic failure that pushes one of the most vulnerable sections of our population into further indignity and crisis. It is useful to remind ourselves that the External Affairs Ministry worked hard to bring expatriates back to India before closing off the borders completely; the same courtesy needs to be extended to workers within our borders as well.
(Khandelwal is Founder-Executive Director and Divya Varma leads policy advocacy at Aajeevika Bureau, a public service initiative for migrant workers in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)