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'PM sent planes for NRIs, why not trains for workers?'

By SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF
April 17, 2020 13:03 IST
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'The situation is so bad that they are now sleeping on bridges or footpaths.'
'Therefore, they want to go and die before their parents or wife in case they get infected with COVID-19.'
'Workers don't want to die a dog's death in cities.'

IMAGE: Migrant workers gather outside the Bandra railway station in north west Mumbai on April 14 to demand that they be allowed to leave for their villages after Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi announced the extension of the national lockdown till May 3. Photograph: PTI Photo

Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi extended the lockdown to May 3 in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus, television channels across the country beamed visuals of a sea of migrant workers congregating at Mumbai's Bandra railway station, demanding that they be sent home.

Elsewhere in the country, too, migrant labourers have been undertaking arduous and dangerous treks back to their villages, hoping to be with their families.

While some have applauded the prime minister for taking tough decisions despite the economic and social consequences, others believe Modi and his government have failed India's poor.

One of them is All India Trade Union Congress General Secretary Amarjeet Kaur who has been scathing in her criticism of Modi.

"The migrants are all alone and the anxiety is building. They had hoped that PM Modi would give them some relief on April 14, but that did not happen," Kaur tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com.

 

Why are migrant labourers coming out on to the streets in large numbers and so eager to return home? Why don't they understand that social distancing is the need of the hour for every Indian?

Out of the 54 crore (540 million) labour force in India, 40 crore (400 million) of them are unprotected as they do not have any safety net or social security.

Only 14 crore (140 million) work force of India is under the cover of social security.

These 14 crore workers are in established public sector units, private sector units or established factories where social security is covered.

Now out of the the other 40 crore, we have 10 crore (100 million) of them who are inter-state migrant work force. Another 10 crore of them migrate inter-district within the same state.

In this category, some of them come to cities for casual work -- for example, driving an autorickshaw. They go back to their villages for agricultural activities (at the time of the harvest or sowing).

Many of them have families behind in villages. They are youngsters or middle-aged. They come to the cities to earn and go back.

Now as soon as the lockdown happened, they lost their work. Those living within factory premises were told to go home by their owners.

So many of them left for villages and those who got stuck want to leave now.

The middle class point of view seems to be that the labourers are ill-informed about COVID-19, social distancing and covering their faces or they don't consider these means as necessary.

They know it. We underestimate (the knowledge of) poor people.

In a room which measures six feet, how do five people who reside there practise social distancing?

If there are two toilets for 200 people in the slums, where is the hygiene?

Now they cannot afford sanitisation in these circumstances. For 21 days they had no work and now they are running out of food too.

What about the Pradhan Manti Jan Dhan accounts? Didn't these workers get money in their bank accounts?

Their wives got money (Rs 500 per month) in the account and here the workers are sitting in cities.

They are all alone and anxiety is building up.

They had hoped that PM Modi would give some relief to them on April 14, but that did not happen.

Even ration goes to the family back at home on the APL (Above Poverty Line) card and BPL (Below Poverty Line) card.

Moreover, six lakh (600,000) Indians came from abroad between December 19 and March 2020. Till February 2020 the government did not do any screening or did any quarantine.

Rich Indians imported COVID-19 and the blame is now on the Tablighis and workers.

First the godi (a pejorative used for pro-government media) media blamed the Tablighi Jamat. Now they are blaming the workers for spreading COVID-19.

What is the one major concern of migrant workers now?

They want to go back to their families.

Workers know social distancing is not possible in slums. See those slums in Bandra and you will find there is no place for workers to sleep in those small rooms.

The situation is so bad that they are now sleeping on bridges or footpaths. Therefore, they want to go and die before their parents or wife in case they get infected with COVID-19.

Workers don't want to die a dog's death in cities. They know nobody will touch their dead bodies in the cities if they die due to COVID-19.

Workers are seeing that even rich and middle-class families are unable to bury their loved ones and they are wondering what will happen to them if they die on the pavements.

What about laws like the Unorganised Social Security Act 2008? Does it not help workers in such times?

We have the construction workers board separately, but only those workers, who are registered, receive their benefits.

The same thing happens with beedi workers as only registered workers get benefit out of the welfare fund which is with welfare boards.

As far as hawkers and vendors are concerned, a law was made for them, but that law has not been put into practice.

All these people do not have any social security to depend on.

ESIC (Employees State Insurance Corporation) hospitals are meant for workers who work in factories, but those factories have to be registered and must have 20 employees.

Now most factory owners work with only 18 employees as they do not want to pass on the benefits of ESIC to their workers.

Factory owners find ways to manipulate the law by hiring two less people than 20 and don't give the benefit to workers.

What about the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979. which talks about home journey allowance from owners? Is this Act not being followed?

Nothing is happening.

At the grass root level, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act practically is zero.

We have been told that there has to be an MoU between states like they have between Odisha and Andhra. In practicality, what happens?

A worker from Andhra Pradesh dies in Odisha, but gets no protection from the Odisha government and vice versa.

On paper, there are many good things for workers, but in the real world nothing happens.

What did workers expect from Modi's speech? Did you feel anything was missing in his speech?

There was no healing touch for workers in Modi's speech. He should have said that for those who are hungry, the Food Corporation of India would open its gates.

Modi should have said that no state government will have a shortage of ration items.

But the chief ministers of different states are assuring workers of food and ration. Then, why should the PM say it?

Here, state governments are asking for more food and the central government is not giving them more food grain.

The central government supplies food grains as per only BPL and APL cards (registered numbers) to respective states.

Are we sitting on a migrant tinder box?

We are going to face a very bad situation. The working class will be used as an excuse if the pandemic spreads.

Secondly, if hunger grows like this, a fear psychosis will grip workers as they will be scared to come back to the cities to work again.

Thirdly, the rural economy was in a bad shape because of which workers were running to cities for livelihood. Now the government must concentrate on the rural level so that the well-being of workers in rural areas can be taken care of.

You are critical of the central government and not blaming state governments at all.
Don't you think they too need to be blamed for creating the migrant worker crisis as they did not provide them with relief and shelter?

Yes, of course. What I am saying is that the central government did not give enough time to the state governments.

The state governments are rather saying that they do not want their workers back in their respective states. Like Nitish Kumar did not rescue Bihari workers who wanted to come back to Bihar.

There is a policy flaw by state governments too. But there are good examples like Kerala which has managed this crisis very well.

Are labourers hoping that the factories will reopen soon?

It will be not be so easy.

In Punjab, during harvesting time now, the lockdown is going on. It will be very difficult to get workers in cities of India for some time now. This will be bad for the Indian economy.

Modi did not give enough time to workers before the lockdown. He took them for granted.

When Modi could send planes for NRIs, why not trains for workers?

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SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF / Rediff.com
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