The tragedy of Jamlo Makdam, 12, a migrant Adivasi girl who died of hunger and dehydration just a few kilometres away from her village in Chhattisgarh, while walking back from Telangana, symbolises what Adivasi communities are facing during this period of the national lockdown. The Modi government’s declared war on the novel coronavirus is turning out to be an undeclared war against the workers of India, treating them as non-citizens. Among them are workers from Adivasi communities.
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Key insights into migration
This March, in answer to a question by CPI(M) MP P.R. Natarajan, the government gave a tentative estimate of there being 10 crore migrant workers in India but admitted to many being largely undocumented and unregistered as workers. The government has no clue as to the social composition of this large labour force. The last National Sample Survey Office migration survey, which was published more than two decades ago, showed that between 1992-93 to 2007–08, the proportion of migrant households among Scheduled Tribes (STs) was higher than among all other communities. The same data showed that STs were the single largest group among female migrants. Since then, the number of Adivasis dependent on wage labour has increased in comparison to those dependent on cultivation. With 45.5% of rural Adivasis below the poverty line, Adivasis usually do multiple kinds of work through the year; as a cultivator, an agricultural worker, a labourer in non-agricultural work, including migrating in search of work. In the name of ease of business, the last several years have seen an accelerated process of displacement and dispossession of Adivasi communities and a takeover of their land and forest-based resources, increasing the numbers of migrant workers from Adivasi communities.
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The patterns of Adivasi migration are somewhat different than those of other workers — they are short term, often seasonal, and circulatory in nature both within the State and inter-State. Adivasi migration is mainly for seasonal agricultural and construction work, work in brick kilns or as manual workers in urban areas. In Maharashtra, large numbers of Adivasis migrate for fishing work. This is apart from young Adivasi women who migrate to urban areas as domestic workers. The role of labour contractors is more pronounced too. The pattern of migration is through hiring of groups of Adivasi workers by contractors who take them to the designated workplace. Contractors often advance payments and the workers are then treated as bonded to the contractor.
Migrations had already started when the national lockdown was suddenly imposed. In State after State, Adivasis are reporting that work has stopped, contractors often snubbed by the principal employer, have run away leaving Adivasis stranded. Adivasi migrants, since they are not part of the so-called mainstream cultures, are even more vulnerable to the general hostility towards the poor displayed by state agencies, particularly the police. During the lockdown, unable to get assistance and despairing of any free travel home, Adivasi migrants across India have started the long and painful march back often avoiding highways, travelling through forests and side roads to avoid the police.
Law and rights
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, the only law for migrant workers, is on the way to being scrapped by the Modi government as part of its agenda of labour reform. It is to be merged with the Labour Code, which is an instrument to destroy the hard-won rights of the working class. Although the 1979 law is inadequate since it deals only with those migrant workers in the contractor system and excludes workers who migrate on their own, for Adivasi migrant workers employed through contractors, its implementation would have ensured payment as well as free travel back home. In fact according to the law, the Central government is legally liable to ensure free travel home since it is responsible for the termination of the work because of the lockdown.
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Cause of suffering
Having suffered two months of the lockdown without work, Adivasi migrant workers will return home penniless. But they are totally ‘invisibilised’ in the government policies in the package announced. The functioning of Public Distribution System in Adivasi areas, particularly in the hilly regions, is generally irregular. Now, at the time of lockdown, ground reports point to a looming emergency of hunger and starvation in many Adivasi areas. The Central government gave permission for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme work only from April 20. At present, there are hardly any MGNREGA works in Adivasi areas, except to some extent in Chhattisgarh. It is critical to start projects in a mission mode if communities are to be saved from destitution. The MGNREGA projects can and should be linked not only to agricultural operations but also for the collection of minor forest produce. This will be a labour subsidy for Adivasi women who mainly do this work and can help relieve the acute distress. Even though the government did announce revised rates for minor forest produce, in the absence of purchasing centres, the distress sales to middlemen have meant little or no income.
The lockdown has caused more suffering to Adivasis than the virus. Most Adivasi habitats have so far been free of the virus. But what happens to Adivasi migrants when they get home is a major concern as the health infrastructure in these areas is extremely poor. The annual report from the Tribal Affairs Ministry has data on the shortfall in Adivasi areas as: 20.7% for sub-centres, 26% for primary health centres and 23% for community health centres. The shortfall in the number of doctors is as high as 27%. Many of these areas are mineral rich. The District Mineral Fund which is meant for the development of mining affected people had a total of ₹35,925 crore. Till January this year only 35% had been spent and that too only on infrastructure which would help mining companies. The Modi government had arbitrarily permitted use of this fund for COVID-19 control-related expenditures. But in these two months, not a single rupee has been spent on strengthening the health infrastructure in Adivasi areas.
Instead of tackling the grave situation prevalent in Adivasi areas, the Modi government has used the lockdown to further its pro-corporate agenda including in spheres which directly dilute the constitutional and legal rights of Adivasis. It is also in this period that the Supreme Court gave its highly questionable judgment against prevailing reservations in schoolteachers posts for only Adivasis in Fifth Schedule areas in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Many aspects of the judgment will have a negative impact on special constitutional provisions for Adivasis under the Fifth Schedule beyond the issue of reservations.
The lack of protests because of the lockdown does not mean that Adivasis will remain silent on all these issues.
Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP