Walking Into The Frame- India’s Migrant Workers

The massive numbers of migrant working class of the country have been liberally maligned by implication by the Central Govt, including by its representation in the Supreme Court. Several state govts also echo the sentiment. The Status Report submitted by the Govt. of India to the Supreme Court on 31st March in a case involving focusing attention on the migrant workers, says in para 41 (as quoted in The Wire  in the Wire Analysis- ‘Corona Virus Vs free Speech- on 1st April 2020’. “However unfortunately due to some false and/or misleading news/social media message, a panic was created…….there are approximately 4.14 crore who have migrated for purpose of work and employment” and stated that the “present barefoot migration consists of roughly 5 to 6 lakhs”. It further says in para 48(source of quote same) that the Govt. is ‘’seriously considering and will shortly implement a system “to address panic in the minds of migrant workers keeping in view the socio-psycho local issue.’’After such a Report and the Solicitor General’s similar submissions, the Supreme Court got completely lulled and accepted that there was no alternative narrative. It expressed faith in the steps being taken by the Government and in its order the two Judge bench of the CJI and JusticeNageshwar Rao wrote “The migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months.” The Wire’s comment has held that the Central Govt, via para 41, actually meant to say that the news that huge numbers of migrant workers were walking was a myth creation by social media and this led to panic, whereas not so many walked. Be that as it may, the Court held they walked due to panic. This panic was not due to their surety that they would be left unsupported during the period of work stoppage. It was not due to fear of catching the unknown disease. It was panic due to social media misreporting the period of lockdown.

Govts., especially the Central Govt., are effectively conveying and publicly maintaining thatmigrant workers have been hell bent on walking tens of hundreds of miles, far far away from the cushions of shelter and food and stipends waiting for them, given to them by state govts and being assured to them by the Central govt through various pronouncements. They were determined, apparently, to violate the 25th March mantra, ‘stay where you are’. Since they were so certain they did not want to stay near workplaces in corona times, why did they not shift earlier, is the implied accusation.

Workers learnt, with the announcement of Janata Curfew of 22nd March, that they would have to lockdown for 14 hours on a Sunday. They also learnt that trains would not start from 21st March midnight till 22nd March midnight. On 22nd, in the midst of Janata curfew and also Delhi Govt orders of not more than 20 to collect at any site, a highlevel meeting of cabinet secretaries of all states, the Cabinet Secretary and Principal Secretary to PM was held. Their decisions were there in the newspapers of 23rd morning and also known to those who watched the news on 22nd night. They announced a lockdown of 75 districts in the country, extension upto 31st March of complete cancellation of all13,523 railway trains serving passengers, lockdown of all interstate transport bus services and of metro trains till 31st March as well as suburban trains. Apparently, one of the reasons which had sparked concern was that three people under quarantine were found in long distance trains on 21st. Unlike the tens of others who had mocked the ‘request to remain quarantined’ of the Govts when they flew in from abroad since past several weeks, these 3 were caught as co-passengers noted the newly started ‘quarantine’ stamp on their wrists!
Thus on 23rd morning, in Delhi, other metros and in many parts of the country, workers woke to closed workplaces, withdrawn local transport, closed dhabas and local eateries, steep rise in price of flour and no interstate transport….Except. Yes except one. The domestic flights continued to operate till 25th March, Wednesday. Hiding the quarantine stamp on their wrists, foreign returned fliers too could still fly to a destination within the country with other unsuspecting fliers. On the 24/25th night, the PM ‘locked down’ the country for three weeks. Reports from the whole country substantiate that this is what led to absolute panic buying and loot of marketplaces, till clarifications were issued later that same night that essential goods would continue to be available. By then thousands of migrants across the country for whom such expenditure was impossible, had started looking for ways to go home.

They apparently were walking away despite the Central Govt. going all out to take care of them. They were walking despite so many assurances of shelter and food being doled out to them by state governments. They had no problems, say govts, they just decided to go home as they had unsubstantiated fears. The PM ‘apologized’ to them on 29th March for any inconvenience for their own good, but still they walked and still have not stopped.Before the Supreme Court the Central govt. talked of fake news and panic as workers were misled. Is this so?Or did they walk because they knew fully and clearly that Governments would simply discard them, even though there was no dearth of verbal assurances? Is this fear not well foundedin the very well known, already being experienced and very much ongoing practices and priorities of Govts?

Is this so difficult to answer? The Central Govt’s GOsays no rentals will be charged forcibly; no less than the Bar Council of India has been forced to approach the Delhi High Court against tenant lawyers being asked to pay rentals or face eviction.Where does the tenant migrant worker stand in Delhi, let alone any other city? The Kejriwal Govt assured on the 4th day of lockdown that 4 lakhs will receive cooked meals; the first two days, it itself said, it had fed 20,000. Was it immaterial that 3lakhs and some eighty thousands would have gone hungry those days, according to its own admitted requirement? The Finance Minister of India assures free rations; in the Capital itself it is being given to only those with ration cards. The Labour Minister of the national Capital has conceded that online registered construction workers of 2019 in the city, which is the criteria the Delhi Govt. has chosen for giving support of Rs 5000, are nowhere near the number of actual workers (Indian Express page 4, 2nd April 2020).Is the Central Govt unaware that a huge section of migrant population possesses no BPL cards at all even in Delhi let alone the hundreds of tribals from Odisha and Jharkhand flooding construction sites in Telengana, Andhra and Tamilnadu? (These are situations which IFTU has direct knowledge of) In state after state, trade unionists seeking food for migrant workers stranded at closed worksites have had to literally force State Govt machinery to attend to these workers and usually they are still unsuccessful in getting a solution for longer than one meal. In Panipat in Haryana, with a huge population of migrant weavers and rickshaw pullers working even normally for a pittance, leaders of IFTU called SDMs, ACPs and finally the Press along with themselves threatening to go on Dharna, before 4000 plus hungry who had no ration cards started receiving some relief on 31st evening. This relief turned out to be stale food.Somewhere a bit more responsive and somewhere much worse has been the experience in so many states.Vigorous forcing of SDMs, DMs by Trade Union leaders, sometimes needing to be accompanied by media highlighting, brought food to migrants from the 30th or 31st at the earliest- which means not earlier than the 5th day of the lockdown. Most migrants reported food and cash had finished by the second day of lockdown. In some states known for high rate of migration, intellectuals and activists have come together to pool all the distress calls received and try to contact organizations, administrators and Govts of other states to secure food and shelter for stranded migrants. In many places citizens groups, volunteers, RWAs are daily feeding large numbers and the demand still persists despite a week of lockdown getting over. When then will the promised aid come?  And such activism has touched merely the tip of the iceberg. The Hindu (Delhi Edition of 2nd April 2020) carries a frontpage photo of workers sitting outside closed shops, waiting in a long line, without masks or physical distancing, for food to arrive in Koyambedu Market in Chennai. This could hardly be fake news and it is the seventh day of the lockdown.Even in LDF ruled Kerala, while the State Govt. promised all support, in practice in at least two cases involving multiple number of migrants, no funds were sanctioned by the state Govt for feeding migrants; it was left to the pockets of municipalities for funds to execute the “support” and insistent trade unionists are ‘disruptors’ of lockdown. Meanwhile, already there are clarifications from some govts that they are not giving rations for noncard holders while others will give it for those who have Aadhaar cards bearing addresses of their own state. Migrants are likely to have addresses of their home state on their Aadhar cards.Even for those workers getting rations on cards,in most parts of the country, flour mills and chakkis are not allowed to operate and aatta(flour) has disappeared from small grocery stores; even otherwise it is officially Rs 50 or above per kilo in Delhi. Yet the Solicitor General maintained before the Supreme Court on 31st March that nearly 22.8 lakh migrant workers have been provided food and shelter by the Government after they left the cities for their native villages. Which government and where? The Union Home secretary was also present in the hearing and informed the apex Court that 6.6 lakhs were in shelter homes run by the Government in various parts of the country (Statesman, 1st April 2020, cover page). Which governments and where? – the Central Government is not running any shelter and maybe the centres opened in various districts by various state govts since 31st March itself for compulsory quarantine of returning migrants have also been accounted for in this figure.

The mighty numbers collecting at one point on 28- 29th night in the Capital, the forced or planned facilitation by govts of three states to this exodus, ( anyway the arrangements could not have happened without the consent of the Centre) the confining of these workers in “forced quarantines” (this concept and this energy was sadly missing at airports for weeks) in shelter camps in districts as ordered by the Central Govt. along with clamp down orders at interstate borders, no doubt brought the entire issue of the migrant workers into limelight. Workers dying while walking, over 30 of them reported thus, has kept them in the spotlight – but as irritants, as those that ruin the picture by becoming a defacing streak of harsh reality. Somehow the Supreme Court was reassured that the Central Govt. would give migrants food so it only gave an opinion for prayer sessions to be held at shelter homes.Now theanti novel corona lockdown is set to be given a communal spin on the eve of the seriously and widely contended and now postponed NPR exercise due to have started on April 1st. In the process the Central Govt, aided by the mainstream media, will get the chance to ‘lockout’ from public discourse the walk of the migrant workers.

Yet they are continuing walking.The numbers may be more scattered, many might have been secluded into ‘quarantines’ at state borders, many may have made their weary way back to some point, the numbers moving may have shifted more towards central India, but they don’t appear willing to disappear. For anyone linking their walking to “panic” due to fake news on the social media platforms, their very continuing shows they are walking due to hard certainty. They are not all “barefoot”, but have reasonably packed few belongings and attired themselves for their long journeys. Cyclists and cycle rickshaw drivers have also cycled themselves home, it is heard. Those returning are certainly not the affluent of their villages and in most places are meeting hostile responses from administration and from other villagers and panchayat leaders.

It is not clear where the Govt’s estimate of their number comes from; they are still walking though maybe no longer starting.Their message is clear- they work for the wage of the day, without any individual bank balance, without any social or job security, without even being sure of a roof over their heads. For many, the women and children are at home and these too were dependent to differing extents on the money transfers from the worksites. The workers themselves are the question mark over the sincerity and competence of the Central Govt’s fight against the pandemic.This virus came from abroad; India had plenty of time. What use were ‘thermal’ checks of passengers without enforcing quarantine of 15 days? Who should be explaining the presence of unquarantined foreigners and foreign returned entering through India’s airports, irrespective of who other or which other agencies also did wrong. Who should answer why despite those in quarantine going ‘missing’, misreporting, being on long distance trains, on buses and domestic flights, as past weeks have repeatedly exposed, still compulsory quarantine was not imposed from late January itself when it was clear the virus had left the shores of China via airborne passengers? Neither making culprits out of migrant workers nor communal poison is going to deflect the answer. Unfortunately, India’s common masses are the ones going to pay the biggest price for it.


2nd April 2020