-Mrigna Kashyap |
‘Majdooron se darbadar koi nahi, jinlogo ne sabka ghar banaya uske ghar banane wala koi nahi’. The tragic exodus of the disenfranchised migrant workers after the announcement of the first lockdown reinforced Gulzar Sahab’s quote that reads as above. The lockdown as imposed at the drop of a hat came upon the commoners as a thunderbolt while the workers constituting the blue-collar workforce stood at the extreme receiving end. When the Indian nationals were flown in from every nook and corner of the world to the domestic shores by special iron birds, we childishly waited for some cogent policy response for this unfortunate category far from mere theatrics. However, they were nowhere in the Govt. calculations, and their plight reeked of the deep-rooted paralysis of the system in its implementation of policies, the prevalent social inequalities, and administrative fallacies.
‘Lockdown’ and ‘COVID’ would drift into our regular conversations when anxiety soared high. My father would tell me about the rickshawwallah family in the neighbourhood who could not manage to purchase groceries at times after their moderate savings exhausted and my parents, just like the other good Samaritans, would pitch in with their own money and help them overcome the hardship. I also remember my mother telling me how some people they knew had resorted to selling vegetables or other less-profitable jobs failing to make ends meet. The erstwhile non-essential service holders compelling to look for alternatives mirrored the beginning of such nightmarish days lying ahead for a huge chunk of the population amongst us. While several crores lost their jobs, students were suddenly bound into a digitalized world. The fact that 56% of the students in India (as reported in New Indian Express) having no access to smart phones reveals the cracks beneath the sheen in the much touted digital umbrella that became a part of the electoral rhetoric during campaigns. Also the news about the school-goer of 10th standard at Kokrajhar, Assam committing suicide for failing to keep up with the online classes on being too poor to own a smart phone shook our conscience. Coming across such poignant tales enabled me to well imagine the picture at the other end of the spectrum.
With the rise of COVID positive cases in Delhi I arrived at the decision to drive back home to Assam upon much deliberation before flight or train services were resumed. Several visuals of the migrant workers on foot were doing the rounds on social media which were disturbing enough to render sleepless nights, and I was somehow bracing myself to witness similar scenes in person while journeying. My anticipation proved prophetic. Once I set off for Assam via Jamuna Expressway, my eyes couldn’t help but cast a stare at the migrant labourers walking in queues that included kids as well. They kept walking with long strides bearing the scourge of hunger, heat, coronavirus, and the police. The looming fear of being intercepted and lathi-charged by the dandawallas at any point kept them cautious. There were tuk-tuks, autorickshaws, and even thelas that carried people in huddles traversing across states. Most of them had tattered ragtag bags with themselves and holdalls on their shoulders that were full to their optimum capacity visibly holding the entire little world they had built with their meagre earnings. We stopped at Mohabbatpur for a brief refreshment. The restaurants in there didn’t have enough snacks and the shelves were uncharacteristically empty. Upon enquiry we learnt that the migrant labourers had stocked as much as they could to sustain themselves until they reached their destinations. The eatery too was crammed. They frantically looked for food items without being worried about social distancing or following other protocols. The sole concern at that point was to avoid starvation with all their might. Another striking sight from the tragedy was of the labourers walking through the fields by the roadside in an obvious attempt to evade police interception. Thousands might have already died on the way by then. 16 people fell asleep on the railway track fatigued by their arduous journey were ran over by a freight train and killed. Passenger trains meant to be treated as a humanitarian rescue made operational only after several weeks at sky-high fares was an irony by itself of the highest order.
I had read somewhere that several state governments were trying to prevent the workers from moving back to their native places without making any arrangement for food or cash in a bid to make the impression that not all the workers wanted to travel back home. They were described to be kept as ‘hostages’ in the place of their work with utmost political apathy. Govt had no systematic data or records of the migrants, nor was their contribution to the GDP ever acknowledged. It’s easy to have a policy but implementing it extensively only can make a difference. None could imagine the Public Distribution System to fail so miserably at a time when needed the most. The labour force was already prone to vulnerabilities despite the elaborate labour laws in place. Article 19(1)(e) of the Indian Constitution guarantees all the Indian citizens the right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India, subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the general public or protection of any scheduled tribe. According to 2011 census, India has about 5.6 crores inter-state workers. The prime challenges faced by the migrating workers could range from lack of social security and health benefits to poor implementation of policies to lack of portability of benefits. This pandemic has familiarized the commoners with the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. This act has clearly laid down certain basic requirements such as issuance of license in favour of the workers, registering their names with the Govt. Authorities, and issuing passbook amongst many others. The fact that many workers eligible for ration under PDS didn’t possess a ration card is a slap on the face. More than a month into the first wave of lockdown, the Govt. issued guidelines that seemed like a recipe for a greater hardship. The guidelines included screening of the workers for being allowed to travel that required registering with their home state online, secure medical certificate to show they were fit to travel and then report to the police station to procure an e-pass. In most cases the websites did not work. Such complicacy was bound to baffle the illiterate workers who didn’t have even the basic knowledge or a smart-phone in some instances. Moreover, there wasn’t any help desk to address their basic queries.
Studying labour laws in the 3rd year had brought me to a few points. People aren’t familiar with some critical concepts like workers, wages, formal/informal sector, min. Wages, small and medium enterprises, and many others eventually obstructing the addressal of ground realities or policy formulation. Most surveys are outdated or done through fallacious designs, and the data don’t paint a true picture. Above all, the workers are not aware of their own rights. The Central Govt. had issued directives to the states which in turn, issued advisories to the employers to pay full wages and salaries to the workers or employees as the case may be, but there wasn’t any advisory in favour of the manual workforce as observed. According to Barclays Company Estimation, lockdown in India has cost the economy $235bn as reported by Deccan Herald. Labour is a subject in the concurrent list, hence some state govts. have passed ordinances and regulations violating the labour laws, depriving the labourers of their rights. Changes have been made mainly in the Factories Act, 1948, the Industrial Dispute Act, and the Labourers (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by certain Establishments) Act under the pretext that such reforms are necessary to rejuvenate the economy and enhance profit prospects. Some reforms run counter to the standards of ILO including their Fundamental Rights and DPSPs as enshrined in the constitution. The State Governments require the green signal of the Central Govt pertaining to any matter in the concurrent list. These basic yet critical reforms give the employer a higher hand in hiring and firing, determining their wages as per their sweet will, curtailing employment benefits unilaterally, and the likes.
Govt recently released a slew of measures including the framing of the National Employment Policy aimed at the labourers’ welfare accompanied by several other incidental measures. The direction issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court came upon as a relief for all of us. The hon’ble Court mandated the completion of the process of transporting migrant workers to their destinations within 15 days of its order while formulating schemes for their rehabilitation, besides making 177 Shramik Trains operational across the country. All the police complaints pending in the PS against the migrant workers for violating lockdown protocols were directed to be withdrawn with immediate effect. It shall however, call for a great deal of effort by the Govt to convince the migrated workers to travel back to their places of sustenance with the ingrained fear of deprival on the occasion of a similar situation recurring in the future should they not feel adequately assured. The face of that young labourer sobbing inconsolably while narrating his encounter with police brutalities after arriving at his native place still haunts me. He vowed never to go back to Delhi. His tears and lack of faith in the system is a reflection of lakhs of workers like himself vowing never to move out of their native places in search of better work opportunities. We were scheduled to halt overnight at Gorakhpur after covering half of the distance at a stretch but were compelled to rearrange our schedule in the wake of some unforeseen turn of events. Gorakhpur was red-zoned and sealed. I then thought of them; Marching without any halt round the clock hit by the worst of fears. In addition, the deadly Amphan was impending as reported, predicted to cut a path of grave destruction across WB and some parts of Bihar in India. We decided to continue driving until the next morning and take a break. As I glided along in my air-conditioned car, the workers walking parallel to mine on the same road appeared to be sprinting back on the rear view mirror. ‘That’s what Juxtaposition must look like’, I said to myself. The blood gushing out from their feet leaving behind trails can’t be expunged by any word of apology or justification until the end of time.