India was among the first countries to rescue citizens stranded abroad when international travel was severely restricted because of the coronavirus pandemic. Special Air India planes were sent to bring Indians home. In answer to a question in the Lok Sabha on March 4, the Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan said, "Air India has raised a bill of Rs 5,98,90,352 for operating two special flights to China." The state carrier spent Rs 92,566.23 on each of the 647 people to evacuate them from China. There was no charge to the passengers. Subsequently, Indians stranded in Italy, Japan and Iran were also provided the same facilities and brought home. It was a humanitarian step taken by the government of India.
Why should this approach not be extended to help the migrant workers stranded in cities far away from their homes? In the last two months, looking at the central government's policies during the lockdown, the common use of the words "migrant workers" seems to have earned them a reverse "reasonable classification" which robs them of their right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution of India. Obscene inequalities in India embedded in the framework of our social-economic system have been one of the biggest impediments for equal access to constitutional rights. But this period of the pandemic crisis and lockdown has brought this out in a much more graphic way, raising fundamental questions of whether the labouring sections of our population, who have borne a disproportionate burden of the crisis, are at all considered citizens of India by this government.
Consider this. In the first instance, the central government gave just four hours' notice before imposing the lockdown. If their rights as citizens had been factored in, it would have been better planned and a large number of workers would have had the opportunity to go home paying their own way. This right was denied to them. Instead, this huge army of India's labour force was reduced to becoming objects of suspicion, considered as burdens, in many cases beaten into submission for trying to get home, herded into camps, treated as less than humans, leave alone as equal citizens. As on April 5, of the millions of stranded citizen workers, around 1.25 million were given shelter by state governments; more than half of these were in Kerala. What about the plight of millions of migrant workers in other states who had neither camps nor homes?
Even the World Bank in its recent report "COVID-19: Through a Migration Lens" states "lockdown, loss of employment and social distancing prompted a chaotic and painful process of mass return for internal migrants in India." This painful process also took many lives. It is legitimate to ask if notice had been given, would it have saved the life of 12-year-old Jamlo Makdam, the only child of her parents, who had joined a group of adivasi women working as chilli pickers in Telangana and who, trekking back home after the lockdown, died of hunger and dehydration? Maybe if she had known earlier that a lockdown was to happen, she could have taken a bus home? Many died, many suffered. Whose responsibility? Who is accountable?
Now, the third lockdown has been announced. But again the central government has made a mockery of the rights of migrant workers. The first circular issued by the Home Ministry on April 29 instructed states to "mutually agree" to arrange buses for migrants to return home from May 4. The permission was only to travel by road in buses. This was not just devoid of even a minimum of common sense - after all, how many days would it take, for example, to bring workers home from Punjab to Bihar or from Kerala to Bengal - but once again reflected a deeper reality, that of the non-citizenship status of migrant workers in the eyes of the government.
After eight states protested against the April 29 circular and demanded a resumption of train services, the Home Ministry modified its April 29 circular after two days and declared that the Railways would run "Shramik Special" trains. These have already started. However, workers have to pay the full fare. Not only the regular fares, but extra charges of fifty rupees per passenger for "express charges" and food.
According to estimates projected by various state governments, at present, more than one crore migrant workers want to get home. This number could go up dramatically once the process of allowing their return home starts. After all, estimates given to parliament in a written answer from the Labour Ministry on March 24 put the number of migrant workers across the country at 10 crores. Funds with migrant workers are totally exhausted. They have been without work for two months. Their families, dependent in large part on remittances from migrant workers to survive, have gone further into debt. Obviously, they would be in no position to send money for tickets to return home.
The Prime Minister has set up a PM Cares Find. Hundreds of crores of rupees have been donated to this fund. We can only make guesses since the actual amount is not in the public domain. Why is this money not being used to bring the workers home? Whose care is the PM interested in if not that of India's labour force, or rather, India's life force who are the creators of wealth? Further, in the 2020-2021 budget, Rs 5,600 crore has been allocated to the Railways for the PM's dream project of a bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. This is much more than what it would cost to ensure free travel for the migrants. Would national interest not be better served to put an end to such wasteful expenditure and use that money to bring the workers home?
The Indian Railways has the capacity to bring the migrant workers home within a short time framework. On an average, the Railways have a daily traffic of 2.3 crore passengers. Even if one excludes the large section of daily commuters on short-distance trains, there is no denying that the workers can be brought home within a matter of days. What is required is the political recognition of the workers' right to go home. Certainly, during a pandemic, this has to be done with utmost care and precaution for their own safety. State governments too have had the time to plan for the return of the migrants. It is another matter that they are having to do so without any financial help from the centre. Here, too, not a single rupee from the PM Cares Fund has been used to help the states, leave alone transferring resources it should through the Disaster Management Act and fund.
While the centre has taken recourse to the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Diseases Act to issue instructions to states, it has ignored the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, which is an extremely relevant legislation in the situation today. This Act, though weak and inadequate, since it covers only that section of migrant workers who are recruited by contractors for inter-state work and not those who go on their own, nevertheless sets out certain rights for migrant workers. It guarantees registration of migrant workers, a minimum wage, and importantly and relevantly, free travel home if the employment is terminated. There is a legal case to make the central government liable to pay for their journey home apart from the wages lost.
India has been forced to acknowledge the existence of this huge force of workers. Yet, even today, in spite of all the sophisticated methods of computing, the government has no reliable assessment of their numbers. What is an urgent task emerging out of the experience of the lockdown is to ensure registration of this workforce, strengthen the law which governs their employment and above all recognize their rights as equal citizens of India. And as a first step, let the centre take the responsibility to bring workers home with dignity.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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