Jun 27, 2020
“A scrap of Roti, last night’s leftovers to be had for today’s lunch; a bottle of hair oil, a single slipper, the remains of the day, the images that came to haunt India. In one single frame, the tragic story of our migrant workers in this corona virus pandemic and lockdown. These were the twenty men who slept on the rail tracks in Aurangabad in Maharashtra on the morning of 8thof May, because they were exhausted of walking all night, and at about 4 AM thought, it’s safe to pause briefly, and also because they thought a the police would not find them here as they made their way home, but they would never reach their village. A goods train carrying petrol and diesel ran over them a little after 5 in the morning.”
The above paragraph has been taken from a journalist’s report for a YouTube Channel, “MOJO Story”. Like this channel, numerous other media houses carried the story of twenty migrant workers dying in a horrific train accident. As fellow citizens, we sympathized with the deceased and prayed for them to “rest in peace”. But, next morning, as an avalanche of other stories devolved upon us, we, the fellow citizens, forgot them. We never stopped to ask ourselves, who were these people? What were their names? Where are their families? What would now happen to the families? What about their children, did they have any? Or even, why did twenty people have to be killed in such ghastly a fashion in the first place? Could it have been avoided? Could it? Shouldn’t it? These questions were, as I said, buried under an avalanche of “other important stories” and then cloaked with a cruel metaphor, “twenty migrant workers”.
In this piece, I intend to discuss some of the above questions.
The twenty migrant workers who died in the awful tragedy belonged to Maman and Antoli villages of Madhya Pradesh. The men worked at a steel factory in Jalna, Maharashtra. It is told that the men began walking because they had not received anything in payment from the contractors for two months and had run out of money. Some of them were married and had kids too, others were not. The families, it is told, were paid some compensation, however, how many days could it help them sail through is still highly uncertain. Besides, could anything ever compensate the loss of a loved one?
The bigger question still is, “Could these deaths have been avoided?” I believe they could. The problem with the migrant workers’ crisis in India, which happened in addition to, and for the first few weeks- in lieu of, the Corona virus crisis, snowballed so much because of two reasons; one, the absolute unpreparedness of the Indian Government in locking down the country and two; the failure of crucial institutions post that to respond to the crisis.
Even the most ardent fan of the present Government will concede to at least one point- this Government does not plan enough before taking major decisions intended to affect vast majorities of population. The demonetization of Rs 500 and 1000 notes is a paradigm example of the same, and the migrant workers’ crisis shows, no lessons were learnt.
On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the country a window of 4 hours, and the country was to be shut thereafter. The decision, then hailed as a powerful one, clearly could not premeditate the tragedy that it shall be for 139 million migrant workers of India (World Economic Forum). The nation-wide lockdown was not to be lifted any time soon, and a series of decisions were accordingly taken in tangible hurry. On March 27, the Central Home Ministry ordered states to ensure ceasing of movement of migrant workers, permitting them to use National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) so as to provide food and shelter to the migrant workers. On March 29, diktats were issued stating landlords should not demand rent during the period of lockdown. It also directed employers to pay wages to their employees without deduction.
Yet, despite such directives, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have narrated stories that show none of the directives were ever seriously obeyed. As record holds, the Government failed in implementation.
As one would wonder, whose responsibility was it to ensure that such a situation was avoided?
The subject of Inter-State Migrant Workers falls under the Union List of the Constitution of India. The Central Government, consequently has enacted a vast number of legislations in this area, such as The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, which was enacted in 1979 to regulate the employment, wages and welfare of ISWM; Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976; Building and other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 (BOCWA); Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
These laws, however, are “poorly conceived, badly and inadequately implemented and do not provide for universal coverage” (quoting KR Shyam Sundar and Rahul Suresh Sapkal’s “Knee-Jerk Responses and Political Slugfests Won't Solve the Problems of Migrant Workers”). Despite such laws being in place, informal and migrant workers tend to remain disentitled. It is due to the lack of implementation of such laws in their entirety that the situation is so awfully bad.
In addition to the aforesaid, a little more planning from the side of the government could have prevented a lot of damage. It is almost unbelievable that the Government did not once think of such a large section of the population and took such a colossal decision. How difficult would it have been for the Government to run trains on their full capacities and ferry migrant workers back to their homes? It would have taken not more than a week and this major humanitarian crisis could have been averted. Notably, the Shramik Special Trains were started only on May 01, a little over a month after the lockdown did. Even then, the issues of paying for the tickets, some states refusing to admit the trains, trains diverting routes and reaching unplanned destinations, etc continued to arise. As a common citizen of this country, I am bound to ask, how could the government of the world’s most populous democracy not have prepared itself after thirty days of hiatus?
The failure of other institutions of importance contributed to the worsening of the migrant workers’ crisis. I am constrained to comment on the role of the “Hon’ble” Supreme Court of India in this regard.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition on behalf of the migrant workers on March 30, and asked the central government to file a status report with respect to their situation. In its report, the central government stated that “the migrant workers, apprehensive about their survival, moved in the panic created by fake news that the lockdown would last for more than three months”. The court was “satisfied” by this response. Later, a plea requesting payment of minimum wages was rejected by the Court on April 21, on the premise that workers were already being provided free meals. On May 16, the Supreme Court rejected a PIL to direct the District magistrates to identify and provide free relief and transport to the migrant workers, stating that it was the responsibility of the state governments.
Commenting on the workers killed sleeping on the Aurangabad railway tracks, the Court stated that “it could not have been prevented”. The central government stated that inter-state transport had already been provided to the migrants and requested them to wait their turn instead of choosing to walk.
It was only on May 26 that the Supreme Court admitted that the problems of the migrants had still not been solved and that there had been "inadequacies and certain lapses" on the part of the governments. It ordered Central and State Governments to provide free food, shelter and transport to stranded migrant workers. Notably, hours before this ruling, senior lawyers from Mumbai and Delhi wrote a strongly-worded letter to the Court, regarding its "self-effacing deference" towards the government thus far.
I dare not say much about the Apex Court of the land, however, this tweet by Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan says it all, “When historians in future look back at the last 6 years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the Supreme Court in this destruction, and more particularly the role of the last 4 CJIs”.
All in all, migrant workers’ crisis in India has exposed the irony that India is. Where everything seemed to be hunky dory, deep down, we were aware of how very deep and dark the issues of poverty and unemployment are. Almost all major institutions failed the migrant workers, on the contrary, private entities and NGOs have done laudable jobs in helping them. With the International Labour Organisation taking note of the suspension of labour laws by some states, the Government still has the chance of doing its bit and helping the needy.
At the end, may I just say, I still do not know the names of the men of Antoli who died in the Aurangabad, nor do I know those of the ones who died either because of no food, or because a truck ran over them. But I differ from the Supreme Court as I say that all of the above could have been prevented.
Let’s just remember, India’s invisibles were, and are, somebody’s entire universe.