Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

From HIV to COVID-19, Ganjam’s migrant workers remain undocumented

Migrant workers undergo thermal screening at Jagannathpur Railway Station, in Ganjam district. File

Migrant workers undergo thermal screening at Jagannathpur Railway Station, in Ganjam district. File   | Photo Credit: PTI

Denied fair working conditions, their numbers are still an estimation despite several efforts at fact-finding

Two decades ago, the HIV virus impacted issues related to the lives and livelihoods of lakhs of workers who migrated to Surat in Gujarat from Odisha’s Ganjam district in search of work. Their return after the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were lifted reveals that nothing much has been done for their registration and documentation till date. The Odisha State Labour Department lacks detailed information on them. Their numbers are still an estimation. Social activists working with them allege that their poor living conditions and their inhuman exploitation has yet to be looked into.

Many from Ganjam have been migrating to work in Surat’s textile mills for a long time now. They were identified as the reason why Ganjam is Odisha’s most HIV-prone district in Odisha but there has been no concern for the problems they face.

AIDS awareness

In 2000, the Ganjam district administration, through a NGO called ARUNA, began the distribution of brochures with information on the prevention of AIDS in migrant workers boarding trains for Gujarat at Berhampur Railway Station. During the process, the names and addresses of migrant workers were collected. In 2001, ARUNA, with support of a local unit of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), prepared a transit point study report of migrant labourers at the Berhampur Railway Station, which was handed over to the Odisha State AIDS Control Society (OSACS) for necessary action. Apart from HIV, the report also spoke of issues related to the migration of workers to Surat.

At the sixth national convention of the Indian Network of NGOs on HIV & AIDS held in Bhubaneswar in February 2002, the inter-State flow of migrant workers was a major point of discussion, and the migration of workers from Ganjam to Surat in Gujarat also came to fore. OSACS decided to send a team to Gujarat to study the condition of Odia migrant workers there. A team from Gujarat also visited Odisha.

In December 2002, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for one year was signed between OSACS and its counterpart in Gujarat for pre-departure information sharing related to migrant workers, which involved their registration and the provision of essential information about their workplaces in Gujarat. The panchayat-level mapping was entrusted to ARUNA.

SETU project

This was followed by the SETU project promoted by OSACS, funded by the Catholic Relief Service and implemented in Ganjam by ARUNA. Under this project, detailed information on migrant workers in 40 panchayats of Ganjam was collected, and a ‘Prabasi Sharmik Suchana Kendra’ (information centre for migrant workers) was established in several panchayats. But a large chunk of migrant workers were left out from this documentation as the project did not operate in all panchayats.

After a lull of a few years, in July 2006, then District Collector of Ganjam V. K. Pandian addressed the problems faced by migrant workers threatened by HIV. Again, an OSACS team, which included a senior official of the Odisha Labour Department, travelled to Gujarat to conduct a study. In 2007, the Ganjam administration sent another team to Surat. In 2006-07, the State Panchayati Raj Ministry directed the panchayat-level registration of workers from Ganjam travelling to Gujarat, especially to Surat, for work.

Ironically, till now, comprehensive information on Odia migrant workers in Surat, whom some organisations estimate to be around 7 lakh in number, remains unavailable. The report by the team that visited Surat in 2007 estimated the number of Odia migrant workers in Surat to be around 6 lakh, with 5 lakh of them hailing from Ganjam.

Limited data

Lokanath Mishra, convenor of the ‘Link Workers’ Scheme’, a project for Odia migrant workers, said they had provided updated data on about 80,000 migrant workers to the State Labour Department, the only such major record available, he said.

The recommendations relating to accommodation, health, education, labour rights, wages and benefits, made by the teams that visited Gujarat, have not been implemented. The 2007 team suggested the registration of all migrants at the panchayat level, and the issue of identity cards. This has not been achieved.

The mass return of migrant workers to Ganjam due to the COVID-19 pandemic has once again provided an opportunity to create a data base on the substantial numbers of migrant workers from Ganjam, said Mr. Mishra.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 12:37:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/from-hiv-to-covid-19-ganjams-migrant-workers-remain-undocumented/article31827367.ece

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