Migrant labourers are not just voters, they are humans too
Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly wreaked havoc in all sectors including Health, Economy, Agriculture, Industry, Trade and Commerce, Transportation, IT and Education
Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly wreaked havoc in all sectors including Health, Economy, Agriculture, Industry, Trade and Commerce, Transportation, IT and Education. During the early days of pandemic, the government has projected lockdown as the only possible solution to stop the spread of coronavirus, but very soon it realised that beyond lockdown, there are several precautionary measures that need to be undertaken for the health and wellbeing of citizens during the testing times.
When the lockdown was imposed, India was in better position in comparison with the US, Italy, Spain, Europe, and other countries in terms of number of positive cases and deaths. However, instead of considering lockdown period as preparation time for the upcoming health devastation, the governments – both Central and States – whiled away the time. Of course, the lockdown was inevitable but the way it was declared and executed was objectionable, while majority of the migrant workers were left high and dry at their workplaces, where there were no stocks of food grains not stable shelters. Several countries have given adequate time for their migrant workers to reach their homes from workplaces, whereas in India, they had not been taken into consideration while declaring the lockdown. As public transportation was banned, thousands of migrant workers walked barefoot to their native places at least to be with their near and dear. Several of them were killed in accidents, scores of them died of hunger and many others lost their mental balance. Despite the subject of Interstate Migration listed in Seventh Schedule (Article-246) entry 81 of the Union List, the Central government deliberately ignored the problems of migrant workers across the country till May 2020. The discriminatory attitude of the government towards the migrant workers in the country right from the beginning of the lockdown resulted social exclusion. Migrant workers who contribute 10 percent share in countries' GDP, were ill-treated and denied justice during their return journey to their homes.
The lockdown was seen more as a law and order issue than the protection and solidarity of human beings from the deadly effect of the Covid-19. Hence, there was a human rights violation in the name of Covid-19 lockdown across the country.
At last, the government permitted migrant workers to return to their homes, succumbing to the pressure from media, Opposition parties and social activists. Special trains were arranged from different States with lot of confusion and with no proper facilities. On the other hand, the rich foreign migrants, in an operation called 'Vande Bharath Mission' were provided all facilities to return to India in specially charted flights.
Even in the Prime Ministers' series of lockdown speeches, the ongoing problem and grief of local migrant workers were not mentioned. Later, while announcing the "Athmanirbhar Barat" economic relief package for the revival of the country's economy, only meagre priority was given to the most affected section of the society. According to a study, in 2019-20, there are nearly 18 to 20 crores migrant workers in the country. It is also estimated that in every four labourer-workforce, one is migrant worker in an unorganised sector.
Another notable concern of the working class is suspension and modification of labour laws. Since the subject of labour welfare fall under concurrent list of the Indian Constitution, BJP-led State governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh have suspended several labourer welfare laws without the consent of their concerned legislatures. Suspension of such laws in this time of Covid-19 jeopardized the life and livelihood of the working class.
Since majority of migrant workers are deprived of the minimum needs and basic amenities, they are under lot of pressure moving from one place to another. The government and the industries must extend their support in order to maintain smooth functioning of the economic activities. Food security, health and social security, right to education, right to have a dignified life etc are integral part of the human development considerations. Hence, improving living conditions, providing basic amenities, safe drinking water and sanitation, urban area housing, education to the children of the workers, health facilities, social security and minimum wage standards, etc at workplace should be the basic requirements for migrants to return to work.
The approach of the government and corporate industry must be reformulated and revised in the lines of social harmony and development of the working classes. It is also important to resume the suspended labour laws to empower the working classes and moreover a dialogue process must be initiated to formulate a comprehensive policy with an effective legal support from the laws, rules and regulations. Unilateral decisions in disadvantaging the working class may leads to the discrimination and social injustice therefore it hampers the economic development and social harmony. On par with foreign migrants, domestic migrant workers should also need to have a board to ensure that basic facilities are provided to them. Maintenance of digitalised nationwide database for the migrant workers would also enable the government to provide services easily. The proposed Migrant Labour Commission at the national level needs to address the problems of migrant labourers.
Keeping in view of the health and nutrition for the migrant workers, the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the country needs to be revised. It is also important to include various other food supplements like millets, dry fruits and pulses along with the regular supply of food grains. The PDS shall also need to adopt online system which would enable the beneficiary to get services from anywhere in the country, so that the migrant workers can utilise the services even in the workplaces. Along with health and nutrition, education for migrant workers' children is one of the most important concerns. Under Right to Education Act-2009, (Article-21 A, of the Indian Constitution), the authorities must be ensured free and compulsory education to the children of migrant workers. Inclusion of poor and marginalised sections of the society, especially migrated workers into the development process is of the utmost important in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations Organisation. To achieve this, the government should play a positive and constructive role in promoting universal fundamental human rights of right to life, right to work, right to education, right to access free public healthcare and pension to old age and disabled persons to promote human dignity and social justice.
(The authors are professors at Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad. Views expressed are personal)