How lockdown disproportionately affects migrant workers

How lockdown measures have disproportionately affected migrant workers

While it was a good idea to maintain the lockdown for the prevention of COVID-19, government did not predict or prepare for the shortcomings of this lockdown for many

Representative image.

‘I am seven months pregnant, no food in the house and my husband is not around. We are struggling too, won’t you help us?’ This was the response of one of the distress callers from Bengaluru when told that our group mainly works with migrant workers. Her situation is undoubtedly harsh. However, from just a few kilometres away, migrants from Bihar reached out saying, ‘We are being made a joke of, to get a single roti, a single meal.’ An unplanned national lockdown means that vulnerabilities have to be constantly pitted against each other. 

We are volunteers with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). SWAN has been actively conducting relief work for stranded workers across the country since March 27. Based on this relief work, we released a report on April 15 titled ‘21 Days and Counting’. A follow-up report is due to be released soon. What is deeply worrying is that the population groups reaching out to us are changing rapidly. While initially, it was migrant workers from other states, we are now getting distress calls for food and money even from people who have been in Karnataka for more than 10 years.  

In fact, even people with Karnataka ration cards have been reaching out. These demonstrate that the need for food and the extent of precarity is not restricted to migrant workers but to a much larger class. In one case, we received a request for food even from BBMP through a self-help group. Distress signs are indeed ominous when a government agency reaches out to private individuals for help at such times.  

Facets of ‘othering’ come to the fore

Sunkadakatte, Bengaluru, is home to many groups of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who have been in Bengaluru for more than 10 years. They have Aadhaar cards and bank accounts in Bengaluru but no ration cards issued in Karnataka. Sunkadakatte is also home to many working-class people from Karnataka. SWAN received distress calls from both the Hindi-speaking and the Kannada-speaking groups. However, the workers from Bihar and UP were denied ration or cooked food when it was being distributed in that area. ‘They were not “localites” explained one of the government ration distributors to our volunteer on call, ‘let them go ask for ration in whatever place they are from’. 

In the background of this runs the proposal to have ‘one nation, one ration card’, where beneficiaries would be able to avail the ration under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) from any Fair Price Shop in the country, using a single ration card. In another instance, a worker from Dommasandra, Bengaluru said, ‘We came to the city recently, and had to sell our phones to get money to eat. Now because we are Muslim, and speak Hindi, no one around us even speaks to us, let alone lend us their phone to call you.’ At a time when the Constitutional guarantee of  right to life through right to food for crores of people is being violated, the lockdown is also revealing the multiple ugly sides of ‘othering’, cutting across religion, language, and geographical origin of people. 

Scale of distress

Since the lockdown began, as on April 26, more than 4,736 workers in Karnataka have reached out to us. About 73 percent are daily wage construction workers with an average daily wage of Rs 412.  Out of more than 3,506 workers for whom we have this data, about 63 percent had not received rations from the government and 65 percent had not received any cooked food. Around 70 percent have not been paid by their employers (out of 2,973 people) at all during the lockdown and about 48 percent have less than two days of rations left (out of 3,132). Around 98 percent (out of 3,411) had not received any cash from the government. More than half of them have less than Rs 100 remaining with them. With this money, they are expected to buy food (if they don’t get rations), vegetables, soaps, oil, gas, recharge their phones and return to their villages post lockdown. 

Given the high volume of distress calls per day, it is imperative that governments increase their responses with compassion and urgency. Many groups, including ours, have been providing temporary relief, all the while notifying the local and state governments to step in. We welcome the unconditional support of two officials in the Karnataka administration who have responded with urgency and made themselves constantly available to civil society requests. We do hear of many cases of many panchayats in Karnataka providing relief for their areas. However, the rate of state support is much slower than the increasing rate of distress caused by the unilateral decision of a lockdown.

Of the 20 large cases SWAN highlighted to the Karnataka government since the April 16, one has received ration subsequently. Five urgent cases were referred to civil society organisations as well, due to delay from the government end, and were resolved. We have come across cases where the local government in Mysuru directed the owner of a building to provide ration to his tenants who had no income, a task which certainly should fall under the government’s ambit. We also have cases where the government helpline (a ward member) advised us to look for an NGO or individual donor for urgent cases, as they had been waiting for two days for the stock of relief kits. Of course, the meagre two kgs of rice and one kg of atta -- which is what is given in most cases -- is hardly enough for a few days. In the case of the basic need for food, civil society is able to step in with donations of cash and food materials. But these have an absolute limitation when it comes to providing medical attention, only barely patching up the situation by providing money for medicine. This too falls under the list of services the government must provide, but the stories from workers show that it is unmet. 

All this points to the lack of preparedness of the states to handle a crisis of such proportions. This is to be expected when given only four hours of notice to prepare for a lockdown of 21 days, which was then extended. While it was a good idea to maintain the lockdown for the prevention of COVID-19, the government did not predict or prepare for the shortcomings of this lockdown for many in our country. What our experience is demonstrating is the complete callousness of the Central government towards crores of our working class and the extreme vulnerability that they have been pushed into with brazenness. In the broader ‘COVID crisis’, steps have been taken to avert the medical crisis, through physical distancing, and these steps have been put in place with great effort. Can we say the same for the economic crisis?

(Abitha Chakrapani works at Azim Premji School, Yadgir and Nithya. R works for a community development NGO in Chennai called Pudiyador. They are also volunteering with the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). The authors would like to thank Rajendran Narayanan for his inputs on the article)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors’ own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.