The self-driven exodus of workers and worse still, the ‘state-sanctioned’ send-off after two months of lockdown, has been the biggest failing of both, the Maha Vikas Aghadhi-led state government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government.
For a state that was prescient enough to be the first in the country to come up with disaster management and rehabilitation policy in 1993 after the 30 September earthquake in Marathwada that year, what a comedown it has been that it did not similarly have a Plan B in place for its migrant workers when the lockdown was announced. The possibility of planning for a pandemic never occurred to the politically astute powers-that-be.
Remarkably, the Commissioner of the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), who was the erstwhile Latur Collector in 1993, also failed to bring his previous experience to bear upon the handling of the current situation. And astonishingly, this informal sector remains largely ignored even by most of India’s labour laws.
The self-driven exodus of workers and worse still, the ‘state-sanctioned’ send-off after two months of lockdown, has been the biggest failing of both, the Maha Vikas Aghadhi-led state government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government. The reverse migration triggered of a tragedy that exposed their colossal neglect of and rank indifference to migrant workers. All ‘migrant workers’ in Mumbai are not just daily wage labourers, nor are all from Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and Jharkhand. They also from within the state, working as artisans, office assistants, cab and autorickshaw drivers, odd-jobbers, some self-employed, other vendors and many others labourers. When things were ‘normal’, everybody gladly used their services, barely sparing a thought for their existence even – where they lived, how they lived, commuted and there were the usual detractors who protested about the multitudes of migrants around. Until 22 March, we all co-existed in a tenuous peace. And then the lockdown struck.
We forgot all about our service providers at the time we began to hoard essentials. We let them languish in their dismal hovels, too busy bemoaning the calamity that had befallen us. They were left to fend for themselves. Frightened and dejected, starving and desolate, they longingly thought of the homes they had left far behind. And decided to return. On foot. They were going to die trying at least because the ‘mai-baap‘ (colloquial term for government in Hindi) had not spared a thought for them.
Neglect of migrant workers
And when the government finally got around to doing so, its technique was ham-handed, utterly bereft of any humanity and logic. The first thought of the government should have been to arrange for the migrants to leave but as subsequent events proved, it was nowhere on the agenda until reports of groups of people walking along highways began to emerge. However, this delay cost the lives of over 300 migrants.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown, authorities in Maharashtra would have definitely had some idea of the number of migrants stuck in various cities of Maharashtra where they had been working. While the other people got four hours to go out and shop for essentials, it was evident the head of the nation had forgotten that same workforce he claimed he supported, the workers.
Though the state government urged the workers to stay back and not risk their lives, it was evident they were not comfortable to keep such a huge workforce with limited rations and shelters. There were 38 lakh migrant workers in Maharashtra, of whom, nearly 10 lakh were in Mumbai until the exodus began. Nearly 53 per cent of this force was from within Maharashtra. So far, eight lakh have left the city while the remaining two lakh are set to go.
However, neither was the local Marathi working-class keen on taking up the jobs of the migrant workers nor were the industries keen on hiring locals. The lockdown has deeply affected the economy. According to an assessment by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in early April, the Covid19 crisis may push 400 million workers in the informal sector in India deeper into poverty.
Fight against hunger
The migrant workers got a giant wallop of the indefinite lockdown, which basically meant no work-no wages-no food. Death by hunger was a larger problem than the pandemic and continues to be, for the city’s homeless and poor. As it is, Maharashtra ranks No. 10 on the India State Hunger Index, as per a study conducted by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Migrants undertook long journeys only to ward off hunger. The popular narrative, including that of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, was, the workers would be provided temporary shelters and food. The state did fulfil this promise. But while the workers appreciated the food and shelter that was provided, they could not run away from the dark truth – it was temporary.
Alarmingly, the Maharashtra government also claimed it did not have sufficient rations. Thackeray said in one of his addresses, the Centre had not given the required provisions and funds to the state. The state had not got wheat worth Rs 1,750 crore. And reports of migrant labourers dying of hunger while walking home revealed the failure of the government to reach out to the migrants with food and shelter in an inclusive manner.
Across India, too, there were reports of migrant workers dying of hunger while returning to their villages either on the Shramik special trains or by road. But sadly, PM Modi did not acknowledge the hardships borne by the workers. On 17 May, in his televised speech to the nation, he claimed, “The nation’s top priority during the lockdown was to ensure that no one remains hungry.”
Role of civil society
With rations drying up, the Thackeray government was more than happy to give the job of providing food to civil society, which it had hitherto not even deigned to consult. In this entire pandemic, there is a task force which comprises only of medical professionals, but none who have an eye out for grass-root workers. In Maharashtra, 71 per cent migrant workers told the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) that they had rations for only for one day, while 89 per cent had rations for two days.
This prompted two NGOs, the Sarva Hara Jan Andolan and Delhi Shramik Sanghatan, to approach the Supreme Court against Maharashtra’s callous handling of the migrants. The government was also pulled up by the Apex Court for claiming that everything was fine with the migrants’ issue and was asked to identify the shortcomings and lapses and do the needful.
Under the government’s ‘Mission begin again’ started since early June, many of these workers have begun returning to Maharashtra and Mumbai. The home department has said that 15,000 migrant workers are returning on a daily basis. This time around, the government will need to ensure such a disastrous error is not repeated. To begin with, they will need to make employers more accountable for the welfare of the workers.
Maharashtra has often pioneered in drafting progressive policies and must learn from this experience. It must work with think tanks, civil society, activists and labour experts to come out with a robust policy that to ensure the protection of these men and women who toil for the state’s economy. Such a policy must at its core be mindful that migrants not only add precious value to the local economy but are an essential part of any city’s socioeconomic structure. An important aspect of such a policy should, therefore, be to ensure that their self-respect and dignity is secured. Provision of rations from the public distribution system to all migrant workers during such extraordinary times – even if they don’t hold a valid ration card, could be a start.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)