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Covid-19: A Wake up Call for the Indian Government

Urvashi Kamat - Advisor, Quality Education Program 


Picture Credits: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

A lockdown was imposed in India on March 24th  2020 as a result of the pandemic in the form of the novel coronavirus. The world came to a standstill and its consequences were inevitable as it adversely affected all aspects of life in the country. Apart from affecting the health of lakhs of individuals it majorly affected the lives of those belonging to rural India. 


It is evident that citizens of urban India faced challenges; however, little attention was given to the plight of the migrant workers and their wellbeing across the country.  Covid-19 is not the only crisis that India faces but in its wake, it also encounters a Migrant Crisis. As recorded by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), 122 million individuals lost their jobs in April 2020 and three quarters were daily wage labourers and small traders. Rural economies require support as they are not able to generate sufficient capital or provide employment for the people and are forced to migrate to urban cities seeking better job opportunities and wages. 



Challenges Faced by Migrants: 


Migrants have been facing challenges much before the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, and this virus has only compounded their existing troubles. The Covid- 19 crisis should serve as a wake-up call to the government and the citizens of India. The lockdown imposed transformed their lives overnight.


As reported, India has surpassed Italy as the fourth country that faces the worst hit of this virus. The new cases arise from rural areas as a consequence of the return of thousands of migrant workers back to their homes. These daily-wage earners migrated to the cities for a better life. They helped build them and were out of jobs without any income to sustain themselves. They were forced to take on back-breaking journeys to their homes. With a lack of public transport and facilities for them, thousands travelled on foot. They were made to take tedious measures, often in containers or cargo compartments in trains with journeys that last over 100 hours to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, and other states. 


Thousands of migrants even suffered from lack of food.  On March 26th 2020, the government announced the doubling of food grains in the public distribution system. However, they were ignorant about the fact that many do not possess ration cards. Twenty-Two deaths have been reported due to lack of food. 50 days after the lockdown was imposed, the migrants received their relief packages late and were inadequate. 


Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka have both seen a rise in the number of Covid -19 cases with the return of the migrants and informal workers. It has been communicated that almost 20 lakh individuals returned to UP within a month and a half since the lockdown was announced. Health officials have stated that about 70% of the new cases were associated with migrants. When the lockdown was relaxed in phase 3 from May 4th - May 17th , 2020, data from SaveLife Foundation reported that 118 migrant workers died. Uttar Pradesh saw the maximum number of deaths; 94, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Telangana, the reason being vehicle collisions.


It has also been reported that 16 migrant labourers who were returning to their homes in Madhya Pradesh were killed enroute by a goods train in Aurangabad. An official stated that they were probably tired of their journey and hence, slept on the tracks.


On April 14th 2020 thousands of migrants assembled at Bandra Station in Mumbai hoping to catch a train to take them home but were devastated when they realised it was a rumour. This led to migrants not practicing social distancing and consequently a protest. The Union Government is to blame as they failed to take into account the plight of migrant workers and arrange means for them to reach home. Prime Minister Modi, stated that businesses must continue to pay their daily wage workers. However, this did not happen. 


On April 29th, 2020, the government announced plans to operate special Shramik (labour) trains across India to carry the migrants to their home states. Even after this measure, migrants complained about lack of food and water provisions and long delays. Migrants were also required to get numerous clearances from their home states.  It is clear that the Indian government lacked the foresight to anticipate this exodus and could have made this process smoother. 


It has also been reported that there will be a dilution of labour laws in Uttar Pradesh(UP) for three years, where its government has approved an ordinance that allows the state to be exempted from most labour laws to produce a push to the economy consequently violating their rights once again. This simply means that India faces a decrease in the standard of labour laws. 


Rajesh Kumar Singh/ The Guardian 


Why are migrant workers so important?

  • About 100 million migrant workers are responsible for 10% GDP

  • They are considered to be the backbone of the informal sector of India and micro and SMEs

  • Migrant workers make up 30%-40% of the economies in the cities, and these economies cannot run without them. Even if industries are allowed to function, it will be difficult without the migrants

  • Migrants contribute to the national economy and are one of the most important sources of labour

Laws Made to Originally Protect Them


While there are several laws to protect them, it is evident that they are ignored by employers because of their lack of implementation. The government should facilitate a better collection of data on circular migrants, so they can be informed and make impactful decisions when it comes to them. 


This outbreak has led to recalling The Inter State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 it regulates and improves their working conditions and employment This law applies to any business that employs more than 5 inter-state migrant workers and is also relevant to contractors. This act includes conditions that discuss their arrangements in terms of their recruitment, hours of work, their wages, and other important amenities that need to be provided. It is evident that although this law seeks to protect them, little is being done and there is a serious shortfall in its implementation. 


There is yet another act that is supposed to safeguard their rights; Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008.  This act provides social security and welfare to unorganised workers. This can be largely ineffective due to tedious registration procedures that need to be undertaken by the migrant worker. They are required to have a self-declaration, create an application form to the District Administration, and would only then be provided with an identity card having a unique identification code.  However, several migrant workers are uneducated and not aware about this law as well. 


Under the present regime in India a new Bill has been passed, Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019. This seeks to merge 13 labour laws into one legislation, which includes The Inter State Migrant Workmen Act 1979. According to this Act, employers are required to provide acceptable conditions at work, housing and displacement allowance along with medical facilities. However, if it attempts to merge 13 labour laws, there could be a chance that once again, little attention is paid to the migrants.

There were measures taken in 2011, with the release of the National Policy for Domestic Workers, by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, however, it was retracted. The very same year Domestic Workers Convention C-189 was signed by India, which stated that domestic workers could enjoy their basic rights, for example, receiving fair wages and working for regulated hours, this too was not ratified. 


Picture credit: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images


A Wake-up Call for the Government 


If the Indian government could provide Vande Bharat flights for expats living abroad, why couldn’t they arrange the same for the migrants? Apart from this, instead of simply providing special Shramik (labour) trains for migrants to reach their homes, the Indian government could have created a detailed schedule along with the routes, and provided a smoother manner of registering a seat. To reduce the impact of Covid-19, migrants should be allowed to benefit from MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), alternatively to providing one hundred days of employment, wages provided should be revised and should be in line with the rural consumer index and also increase the number of schemes in each village along with an increase in the number of days as well. 

Based on the aforementioned, it is evident that the first step is to recognize their presence and that the policies implemented so far have been inadequate. There needs to be a detailed and legal framework that is specifically tailored to their needs that safeguards their rights. This would generate their confidence in the system and also enhance the migrant governance.  


The Covid- 19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for the Indian government to recognize that migrants play an important role in the Indian society and economy. They need to provide attention to their vulnerabilities of their working conditions and security.

Urvashi competed her undergraduate studies from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, majoring in English Literature. After which she went on to pursue her master’s in the same field and simultaneously worked for two years. Currently she is competing her master’s in Management from Trinity College Dublin. She hopes to contribute to start-ups and SMEs.

Disclaimer

All the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article solely belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C.R.R.S.S, as an organization or to other groups of individuals belonging to C.R.R.S.S. Assumptions made in the analysis are not reflective of the position of any other entity other than the author(s) - and, since we are critically-thinking human beings, these views are subject to change, revision, and rethinking at any time. Please do not hold them in perpetuity.


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