Brinda Singhania
Kartik Bohra

Sixteen migrant workers died on their way to home when a goods train ran over them in Maharashtra State as they were sleeping on the rail track. This incident marked the beginning of migrant workers’ death toll amid COVID- 19 lockdown. Just after two days of this incident, five other Indian migrant workers died and fifteen were severely injured when a mango- laden truck they hid in to evade the lockdown overturned.[1] India being the World’s largest democracy includes 45.36 crore of internal migrants in its total population. Also, as per the 2011 census, internal migrants constitute 37% of the country’s population.[2] This part of the population has always been neglected by the Indian Government since past and till now, at this time of the outbreak of COVID- 19 in India. This is maybe because of the reason that such a few percentages of population do not fit well in the vote- bank of the politicians.[3]  

India has lost its soul and moral compass during the pandemic crisis. Migrants are not familiar with their new environment where they are living temporarily.[4] They are susceptible to various psychological, emotional and social anguishes in such situations, running from the fear of being neglected by local community and concerned about their well- being and their family safety, staying at their native places.[5] There is no systematic and proper evacuation of internal migrants amid COVID-19.[6] The government has no specific data related to stranded migrant labourers working in different states. Many surveys failed to recognize the transient and itinerant patterns perceive by migrant labourers. Thus, it is very difficult to estimate the correct size of migrant labourers due to which it is difficult for the government to evacuate them.

Government had started train and bus services for migrant workers to travel back to their hometown amid lockdown. But what is its use, when states have made it mandatory for migrant workers to secure medical certificates, for which they have to pay, before they utilize the government aid, which is very difficult for them to spend now without any employment. Now the main question is that, why the migrant workers want to migrate back to their hometown, when government is ensuring to provide food, transport and basic necessities to country’s migrant population? But is the situation that simple and direct as the above statement indicates?  The answer is a clear no, in reality government did nothing to implement its issued directives to pay full salaries to the migrant workers amid lockdown and also, the promise of providing billions worth of ration[7] as relief witnessed a failure on the face of it as many of the workers do not even have ration cards to undertake the advantage of the government initiatives and directives. Also, migrant workers are facing opposition from the local community and harassment. These are the most vulnerable sections of society and highly dependent on daily wages to live their lives. Thus, in times of such crisis, it is necessary to provide all means of safety and security to them. Further, they need understanding and sympathy of the society to overcome this crisis.

Indian Statutes lay provisions for protecting migrant workers’ rights. As per the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, government at every level of administration must make available its resources for the purpose of responding promptly and effectively to the situation.[8] [s1] The national disaster Response fund shall be made available to the authority to be applied towards meeting the expenses for emergency response, relief and rehabilitation.[9] According to the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined under Part IV of the Constitution of India, the State is required to secure for its citizen both men and women to right to an adequate means of livelihood[10], equal pay for equal work[11], protection against abuse and exploitation of worker’s, economic aid[12] and health assistance[13]. However, in this extreme situation of COVID- 19 lockdown, rights of migrant workers are violated.  As a result of which several PILs have been filed in the Supreme Court. In the case of Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India[14], an advocate filed a petition- in- person seeking directions to start using Hotels, Resorts, Government Guest Houses, State Bhavans and Sadans etc. as shelter homes for the migrant workers as there was a mass exodus of the migrant workers from their work place to their native towns all across the nation. In the case of Harsh Mander &Anr. v. Union of India[15], the petitioner sought directions seeking immediate payment of minimum wages to migrant workers suffering due to the nation- wide Corona virus lockdown.[16] However, the SC court disposed of the plea.[17] Recently, SC has taken suo moto cognizance of the issue related to migrant workers crisis and pronounced detailed guidelines and interim orders about the safety, security and transportation of migrant workers during the lockdown. The SC ordered the central as well as state governments to provide free transportation and food to migrant workers during the pandemic so that they reach their native places safely and securely.[18] However, what remains to be seen is the SC taking cognizance of the Ordinances and notifications passed by several states in India containing exemptions from compliance with labour laws, which is a major concern regarding the protection of Indian labours’ rights.[19]

Poverty is indeed a curse. Migrant workers espying to find peace and family support are ending up their lives being victims of accidents. Sudden situation of lockdown has created chaos amongst the community of migrant workers. The swift decision taken by government slowed down the spread of this deadly disease but raised a very serious concern about the vulnerability and inequality of migrant labourers.[20] A better plan to introduce such a drastic change in their everyday life must have been done by giving at least three days prior notice to the people. Such notice would have made the situation amicable to the people, specially to migrant workers. Moreover, I cannot see any harm of the government in doing so, as it is a matter which is very different from the situation of demonetisation, which required a secrecy and instant announcement for its proper implementation. Migrant workers must be transferred sufficient cash in their pockets to buy their survival needs and grains to eat for at least one month for the first version of lockdown, which however continues to extend with its fullest amplitude. However, it is tough to believe that migrant workers now, during the pandemic will get the wages as per directed by the government, as in normal course of their work they are denied of the minimum wages stipulated under the minimum wages Act, 1948.[21] The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979[22] was formulated to protect the human rights of the migrant workers at the time of crisis. However, currently the state as well as the central government failed to provide adequate relief to the stranded migrant workers and grossly violated their basic human rights enshrined under the Constitution of India. Thus, there is a need to protect the rights of migrant labourers amid COVID-19 and there needs to be a systematic plan of action which must be based on compassion. The authorities should work for the well-being and social security of migrant workers and not use the situation for their political benefits.

[1] (May 22, 2020, 08:24 PM).

[2] (May 21, 2020, 01:33 PM).

[3] A cruel choice was made during the last General Elections in India in the summer of 2019 by a textile plant’s (somewhere along the Maharashtra-Gujarat border) employer, by not granting leave application of a youth who was employed there and was registered as a voter in Uttar Pradesh (UP), his home state. (May 23, 2020, 11:55 PM).

[4] (May 23, 2020, 05:56 PM).

[5] (May 24, 2020, 04:34 PM).

[6] (May 24,2020,07:45 PM).

[7] Under the Aatmanibhar Bharat Package, the Government has announced to supply free food grains to migrant workers who are neither NFSA or State Card beneficiaries in the State they are stationed. This will include supply of 5 kg of grains per person and 1 kg Chana per family per month for two months. Government is expecting about eight crores migrants to receive benefit of this scheme and an expenditure of Rs. 3,500 Crore.

[8] (May 23, 2020, 01:57 PM).

[9] Section 46 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

[10] Article 39A of the Constitution of India, 1950.

[11] Article 43 of the Constitution of India, 1950.

[12] Article 46 of the Constitution of India, 1950.

[13] Article 47 of the Constitution of India, 1950.

[14] Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India, Writ Petition No. 468/2020.

[15] Harsh Mander &Anr. v. Union of India, Writ Petition No. 10801/2020.

[16] (May 23, 2020, 01:58 PM).

[17] (May 30, 2020, 01:00 PM).

[18] (May 30, 2020, 01:08 PM).

[19] (May 31, 2020, 01:53 PM).

[20] (May 26, 2020, 09:34 PM).

[21] Dr. W.N. Salve, Labour Rights and Labour Standards for Migrant labour in India.

[22] (May 26, 2020, 10:47 PM).

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