In India, the informal sector accounts for over 80% of non-agricultural employment. This is a staggering number that has had unprecedented significance in the past few weeks, given the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic . The most vulnerable people in this sector are the migrant workers : the construction workers, painters, delivery boys, cooks, cleaners and factory workers, among others, who have travelled far to eke out a meagre livelihood, almost always without social protection, healthcare benefits and a minimum, decent standard of living.
As the pandemic tests the world in unknown ways, it has finally revealed the fault-lines in India’s ability — or lack of it — to cope with the exigent needs of this migrant population. It has exposed the callousness of policymakers in sidestepping the burning question of financial and logistical support to the hundreds of thousands of internally dislocated persons over the last few weeks.
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A slap in the face
Many across the nation may approve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assured response to the pandemic. Indeed, policy steps have mitigated what could have been a far worse initial outbreak in a populous, overcrowded, developing nation. Yet, disclaimers fall to the wayside when we look at the prevailing social apathy. Even worse, there was nary a word of collective protest when the spiralling migrant crisis was exacerbated in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat which suspended a gamut of labour laws that protect the rights of poor workers.
All this is a slap in the face of the migrant workers. That’s the only way to describe how we have collectively treated the migrant workers who have built the very homes we live in, deliver our food, cook our meals and clean our laundry, so we may sit in air-conditioned comfort. It was a slap when the Centre and States passed the buck to each other on train fares for migrant workers for their journey home, where they understandably longed to be, with no source of income for daily subsistence. It was terrible that these fares were being charged at all. It was a slap on their face when Karnataka decided to cancel Shramik trains , ostensibly for logistical reasons. Instead, the migrant workers were herded like cattle into locations of convenience, not treated like human beings with sentiments and sovereignty. It was a body blow when 16 of these migrant workers died on railway tracks. So desperate was their need to get back home that they lay there exhausted on their way home, only to be crushed to death in the dark hours of the night, in Aurangabad. In less than two months, several scores of migrant workers have died on their gruelling walk home, while they braved the scorching sun with blisters on their feet. It was insult to injury when some migrant workers sitting on the road were sprayed with disinfectant by medical and fire department officials in Bareilly in U.P.
There are laws that are supposed to protect the rights of these workers. But laws such as the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979 and the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 have proved to be an eyewash, offering little protection to this dislocated workforce on the ground.
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How much are migrant workers supposed to endure, stoically? Yet, they have faced and are still facing unimaginable insults and adversities with a resilience and fortitude that is unimaginable to many of us. The world is watching India as millions of migrant workers are on their long march home. They say they will not return unless their governments learn to treat them better. That is likely only if there is a broader realisation that these workers comprise the backbone of our economy. By some estimates, migrant workers contribute about 10% of the India’s GDP. But at the present juncture that backbone runs the risk of herniating, and we have only ourselves to blame.
Madhurika Sankar is based in Chennai