Plight and Peril of Indian Migrant Workers in Lockdown — Shocking Apathy of the Government-Administration


Jamlo Makdam an impoverished 12 year old girl, died in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur after walking for three days through dense forests to reach her home. She had undertaken the desperate 100 km walk from the chilli fields in Telangana where she had gone with other migrant workers to work before the lockdown. She had almost made it, was just 11 kms away from her home. But as the cryptic post-mortem report indicated, she appeared to have died due to muscle fatigue, hunger and dehydration. A 39-year-old man, employed in Delhi as a home delivery worker, died in Agra on March 28 while on his way home to the Morena district of Madhya Pradesh because of exhaustion after covering around 200 km on foot in the scorching sun. A fast moving tempo van hit as many as five persons belonging to migrant labour families while they were walking home in the Bilaspur area of Haryana, leaving all of them dead.Four migrant labourers, who were originally from Rajasthan and trying to reach home from Maharashtra were run over by a truck at Virar on the Mumbai-Gujarat highway. In Gujarat, two women migrant labourers who were heading for their home state of Rajasthan were run over by a freight train in Vapi district.

Such heart-rending incidents are galore since corona lockdown was clamped with barely 4 hours’ notice by the government. In a sweet voice, the BJP Prime Minister of the country preached before announcing the lockdown: “First life, then the world” and then instructed all to stay at home only. If viewed from the danger of spread of deadly Covid-19 virus, the lockdown is justified. But, the central government which was aware of the corona infection of Indians two months back, took no pre-emptive step in right earnest to contain its geometric progression in time. It only awoke from slumber when the danger was at the doorstep. As usual, the BJP government whose track-record has been of faithfully serving the ruling monopolists, corporate behemoths and a few super-rich at the cost of escalating peril, penury and misery of the 95% of the toiling countrymen, conveniently overlooked the impact of the sudden lockdown on the  millions of hapless migrant workers, hungry, unfed or half-fed, shelterless across the country and their families. The Prime Minister and his government had forgotten that its celebrated economic growth model—based on high-growth sectors like real estate and world-class infrastructure in large urban agglomerations—is built almost entirely on the backs of these rural-urban migrant workers. These penury and misery-stricken workers toil from dawn to dusk, sweat out day in and day out to create wealth for the nation. They are the real wealth-creators, not the multi-billionaire industrialists and business tycoons who, as real parasites of society,  appropriate the fruits of the labour of these helpless countrymen to stack their chests. While the benefits of a lockdown preventing the infection from spreading would equally accrue to everyone, the costs will be disproportionately higher for the myriads of poor like the migrant labourers, who, unlike the better off, have neither the luxury of working from home nor enough of a savings pool to exhaust while not earning. Daily earnings of theirs barely suffice to enable them to eat and feed their families. Anecdotal reports of thousands of workers walking on foot trying to reach their homes hundreds of kilometres away glaringly confirm that. And the less said about the condition of those forced by circumstances or police to stay back, the better.

Sub-human life of the migrant workers

Migrant labourers are among the most vulnerable parts of the “informal sector of economy” which make up around 80 percent of India’s workforce. There are estimated 10 crore (100 million) internal migrant workers in the country.  They build malls, multiplexes, hospitals, apartment blocks and hotels as construction workers on contract basis at throwaway remuneration in most hazardous working condition. They work as factory hands, delivery boys, sweepers, conservancy workers, loaders, coolies, cooks, hand-painters, rickshaw pullers and so on and so forth. Many of them stand the whole day by the side of the road selling fruits, vegetables, tea, flowers and balloons. They are forced to come to the cities—even hundreds of miles away from their homes- to look for work, because they cannot make a living in the villages. If there are 5 people on average in each family of the 10 crore migrant workers, then, around 50 crores people are dependent on their earnings. Most of these workers live on high-risk worksites: cramped and poorly ventilated, where they sleep. Many of them spend their entire days—near old, hazardous, second-hand industrial machines, including metal cutters, power-presses, and drilling machines. Their dwelling place is mostly an informal rental space. 15-20 workers cram themselves into single, unventilated rooms—the most premium of which are 10×12 feet in size normally going at the rate of Rs.500 per worker. Many of the workers sleep on the tin roofs of the rooms, while others squeeze themselves in the hollows of the walls meant for storage. To expect even a semi- normal life is a luxurious dream for them. These migrant labourers are not factored into any legislation or scheme on social security available at least on paper for unorganised workers. They are not treated at par with other workers in the destination states and deprived of portability of welfare schemes, access to healthcare and allied benefits, whatever little of those are available. Their sub-human life condition bereft of least of social security is a damp squib on the ‘Preamble of Indian Constitution’ which speaks of ‘equality of status and opportunity’ and ‘fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual’.

Humanitarian crisis created by sudden lockdown

In a matter of hours, the unanticipated public health crisis in India due to Covid-19 has triggered an even larger, humanitarian crisis, the toll of which is being borne, among other pauperized vulnerable sections of the population,  by these migrants labourers as well. They knew they could not afford to stay in the city if they had no income. They were worried they would get sick. Back in their village homes, the somehow dragging  life of their families would come to a grinding halt and death would stare at them. So, more worried about their families as well as their life and livelihood rather than community spread, more than half a million people have been reported to have desperately left the cities and towns where they went to work. First they started walking in a trickle and then in a flood. Within days, a shocked nation began to see images of thousands walking down highways on foot, braving hunger and thirst, the sweltering summer heat, densely forested areas and with continuous threat of disease and death looming large. Walking miles after miles, many of them have died out either of fatigue or accident. But even that huge number is but a trickle compared to the millions of migrants  forced to stay back and herded together in terrible conditions for the greater part. Clearly the poor in capitalist India are on their own. They are poised to die more of hunger and malnutrition and other diseases but also of Covid-19.

Those who could not leave their current place of work called helplines in desperation, seeking food, other essential supplies and shelter, or begging to simply be transported back to their villages. “Pro-people government-administrations” who could arrange chartered planes to bring back affluent Indians from abroad, could despatch hundreds of luxury buses with special permission to bring the stranded students and pilgrims to their respective places of domicile, did not have any mercy, let alone concern, for these impoverished migrant labourers. Instead, the administration forced them to flock together inside so called relief camps which often have been short of cowshed-converted rooms with temporary asbestos shades  making the roof. Many of these centres lack drinking water and have either nil or highly unhygienic sanitation facilities. Food is either absent or available at times in scant quantity and that too often of questionable quality. As per a sample survey based on talk with 11, 159 migrant labourers   struck in the shelter homes, 96% did not receive government ration, 70% did not get any cooked food, 89% did not receive any wage and 78% possess less than Rs 300 of cash. The Prime Minister has been advising ‘social distancing’ (meaning physical distancing) and self-isolation to beat Corona. How is that feasible for these homeless migrant labourers who have no option but to stay in overcrowded unclean government shelters?  Besides being compelled to spend 24 hours jam-packed in such ‘relief shelters’ which are veritable breeding centres for infections, these hapless labourers also run the risk of police action and repression. Worst of such repression and cruelty were seen in the BJP-run UP. There many migrant labourers stuck at the border were asked to provide “health certificates” which they had no means to procure. So, the police  sprayed disinfectants on them as if they were criminals. Similarly, the police swung batons at random to disperse a large group of migrant labourers at a Mumbai railway station where they gathered hearing the news of running a special train to transport them to their homes. After being beaten by the food-distributing staff, four terrified migrant labourers from a Delhi shelter jumped into the nearby Yamuna river and one of them was drowned. Such pathetic incidents bearing the inhuman approach of ruling capitalism and its servitors are not in short supply.

What prevents the very government that can afford to forego a tax revenue of as high as Rs 1.43 lakh crore in just one year by reducing corporate tax rate to come to the rescue of the millions of migrant labourers, the real architects of civilization with adequate monetary help, food, shelter and guaranteed support to their families in their native places? Would it entail more cost than foregone corporate tax revenue?

Did the migrant labourers import COVID infection?

As is known to all, the COVID -19 infection was brought to the country by well-to-do Indians from overseas. But the central government did not stop operation of international flights till 23 March lest the privileged Indians should be inconvenienced, no matter if they were vehicles for importing the virus. The irony is that when the pandemic has been brought into India by people who can afford plane tickets and buy private health services, the virus is devastating the abjectly poor whom these affluent have infected and who have little or no access to health care. This is the unfeeling face of “civilized” “democratic” India.  Why is it that in one surgical move, the government left millions of citizens – casual and migrant labour – marooned, homeless, jobless, foodless, penniless, herded together and locked up? Is it that those who live in skyscrapers or posh bungalows in sprawling cities, frequent cafes and malls, are attuned to digital transactions and capable of flying abroad for spending holidays or building lucrative career, alone are Indian citizens ? Are not the semi-clad semi-fed appallingly poor migrant workers who leave their home and hearth and forced to be in tryst with dust and accompanying hazards to create the pillars and columns of the high-rise buildings, serve at cafes, sweep and paint the malls, citizens of ‘democratic’ India? The answer goes abegging. One is only reminded of what Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, the great Renaissance litterateur of India, had observed in the third volume of his celebrated novel ‘Srikanta’ while dwelling on the subhuman and distressed condition of the workers:  ‘‘But, you, the bearers of modern civilization, you are dying, you die ! Forgive not, in the least, this cruel civilization that has made your life such. If you are to carry it, carry it down speedily to the abysmal depth of its grave.’’

Futile knocking at the Judiciary

Another farcical side of “democratic’ India has once more been laid bare centring on the immense hardship of the migrant labourers. Human Rights activist Harsha Mandar, Anjali Bharadwaj and lawyer Prashant Bhushan had approached to the Supreme Court with the plea that the court might direct the Government for suitable monetary compensation to these hand-to-mouth migrant workers who have lost their jobs due to lockdown and whose employers would not pay them without work. Without such financial help, they could neither feed themselves and nor send money to their families at home. The petitioners appealed that consumable food in required quantity be distributed to these workers now straddled in the relief camps. Under the leadership of Chief Justice, a bench of 3 judges heard the petition. But after hearing both the petitioners and the government side, the Chief Justice observed that there was not sufficient information available to say that the stranded migrants were not receiving food nor could the Court monitor as to whether the food served is ‘inedible’. The Court, he said, did not intend to interfere with the efforts of the government nor could  do anything better than the Government. The Bench advised all to wait for 10-15 days. It meant that the millions of migrant workers had to stay satisfied in the crowded filthy relief camps and the low quality of food Government was providing them, seemingly out of mercy. This was not unexpected. Of late, quite a good number of eminent jurists including Supreme Court Judges have been openly expressing wrath and disgust at the way the juridical process is being tampered with to give a stamp of legal approval to the whims and dictates of the ‘Executive’ and also even scathingly indicting many of the Court judgments. Certain developments did lend credence to such observations. In fact, today when capitalism is in its death throes, flouting, trampling and even overriding the basic tenets of functioning of bourgeois democracy, the political superstructure of capitalism, is bound to reflect the reality. The founding fathers of bourgeois democracy said that “everyone will be equal in the eyes of law”. Clause 21 of the Indian Constitution stipulates that the  Government should secure the ‘right to live’ for these workers. But what is seen in reality? Just the opposite as is being seen in the case of the migrant labourers.

The Prime Minister has announced that during lockdown no worker would be terminated, even if they cannot pay rent and should be allowed to stay in their rented houses without eviction. But to ensure compliance with this directive, who will undertake the administrative initiative? Is there any imposing government order in this regard. Unfortunately not. Everything is left, so to say, to the piousness of the employers and houseowners. Incredible indeed! If unable to compel the employers or the houseowners for whatsoever reason, should not the government ensure a basic income and livelihood of the migrant labourers as per the Constitutional rights? Should not the honourable Judges as the spinal cord of the rule of law, and the final interpreters of the Constitution ensure that their judgments do govern social and economic justice? One is prompted to recall what late Justice V R Krishna Iyer of Supreme Court once commented. He said that “a judicature (should) fundamentally fair and passionately indignant so that everyone gets what is due to him, securing dignity, morality and spiritual integrity. The executive administration of a society can be truly sacred and sublime only when the judiciary and the legal decisions it pronounces are altogether unaffected by considerations of class, community, fraternity and cultural ethos…. But (in capitalism), even the judiciary and the jurisprudence they enforce have a class character.”

Recalling the teachings of great Marx and Lenin

Way back in 1844 when capitalism had not attained the stage of imperialism, its highest stage of development and entered into its inevitable state of decay, great Marx, in his “Economic and Political Manuscripts”, said: “It goes without saying that the proletarian, i.e., the man who, being without capital and rent, lives purely by labour, and by a one-sided, abstract labour, is considered by political economy only as a worker. Political economy can therefore advance the proposition that the proletarian, the same as any horse, must get as much as will enable him to work. It does not consider him, when he is not working, as a human being; but leaves such consideration to criminal law, to doctors, to religion, to the statistical tables, to politics and to the poor-house overseer.”  Later, in the chapter captioned “Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production” in Capital Vol. I, he observed, inter alia, that “within the capitalist system…. accumulation of wealth at one pole is, …at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole”. Later, great Lenin, his worthy student and continuer, held that “Capitalist society is and has always been horror without end. If this most reactionary of all wars is now preparing for that society an end in horror, we have no reason to fall into despair.”(‘The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution’, CW Vol XIX)

The unfolding horror and terror gripping the migrant workers show how prophetic these great Marxist authorities were about the ruthlessly oppressive and inhuman character of capitalism.

In discharging due social obligation in this critical period, all right-thinking conscientious persons need to raise a united voice of solidarity with the distressed fellow citizens who are compelled by the exploitative highly discriminatory capitalist system to somehow eke out a bare living by working as migrant labourers. The organized voice of this conscious humanity ought to be so powerful as to compel the bourgeois governments, both at Centre and in the states, to accede to the legitimate demands of the migrant labourers, the worst victim of the hastily clamped lockdown by an irresponsible inhuman government whose timely intervention and preventive steps could help the country avert this catastrophe.

(source of information: The Hindu 29.12.2013, 23-04-20, 02-04-20, The Week-29-03-20, The Print-30-03-20, The Wire 30-03-20,31-03-20, ABP 27-03-20, 29-04-20, Hindustan Times 04-04-20, The Quint 07-04-20, Frontline 24-04-20, Times of India 23-04-20, 25-04-20, NDTV 12-04-20)

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