The COVID-19 crisis and the consequent lockdown has brought about special misery for migrant workers. Thousands of them took to the road on foot with family and children in a state of shock due to the sudden lockdown without any warning. Many thousands are still hoping to be carried by trains and buses specially arranged for them but with uncertainty about who will foot the bill. When Congress President Sonia Gandhi generously offered to pick up the tab, there was protest about politicking. The Supreme Court was told that all was well and that the workers would have adequate food while arrangements for travel were being made. Yet we had to witness the heart rending tragedy of more than 15 weary travelers being run over by a train as they slept on the tracks. Everywhere, besides the paucity of food, there is a complete loc down on information.
In the entire discussion and mixed reportage of the long march home, of the kind not seen since Partition, there has been very little discussion on the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, as though it is not at all relevant to the present chaotic exercise. If under the Act, appropriate registration of establishments employing five or more migrant labour and contractors dealing with such establishments for the purpose of supplying migrant labour were in place, there would be some order to the operation required to get people home and to provide ready information on their movement. And for those who chose to depart, the contractors would be liable to ensure the travel was without further burden. Hopefully, this phase will be over soon. But one wonders if anyone has given a serious thought to the steps necessary to reopen economic activity. The labour will have to be persuaded to return to the places of work and provided incentives, etc. Instead, the UP government is talking about finding them work in the state, forgetting that they already have an unemployment problem. They believe they can attract new investment by suspending all labour laws (as indeed Gujarat and MP have done). Rights are meddlesome things. The UP government has already given clear signals that dissent is equated with sedition, public protests are to be greeted with disproportionate claims of damages against chosen individuals and their public naming and shaming.
When the migrant labour returns home, how will they access PDS, not having local cards? How will their children continue their studies? How will local authorities know that they have returned to their homes and should be given the monetary relief meant for labour?
Another group that the UPA government sought to protect are the street vendors under The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014. They too were to be registered by local councils and allotted proper places for vending. We are being told that the authorities have done a survey to identify persons for relief. But if they were already registered, why a fresh survey in which most vendors find their names missing? Street vendors and local labourers who earn daily wages are the worst affected besides the migrant labour. The latter may have well have some savings in banks where they worked, but the former category would be hand-to-mouth. One is told that they at least would be provided rations but it is far from clear how that would be done as once again there is little clarity about the system put in place.
The important thing to understand, for the government as well as the citizen, is that dealing with COVID-19 is not an adversarial contest but a collaborative exercise. It cannot be that we can arrogate to ourselves the power to humiliate and hurt citizens in our pursuit for securing our lives. One thing seems more certain: our political and economic institutions will have to be more inclusive and equitable. We have sadly discovered that despite trying, over the decades, we have not achieved herd immunity against factors that cause and aggravate poverty.
(Salman Khurshid is a senior advocate, Congress party leader, and is a former Minister of External Affairs.)
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