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A pandemic and inaction deepen existing inequalities

By May 18, 2020December 23rd, 2023No Comments

Migrant workers and a nation’s collective consciousness

55 days. 100+ migrant worker deaths. Even now, there are millions of people on the streets, trying to do everything they can to make it home. Be it delays, confusion or chaos holding up journeys home, the digital barrier that made it difficult for many workers to book train tickets online, or the growth of trucker mafias compromising safety on the road, the migrant worker continues to pay the price in every case! And just as they helped build our cities and made our lives comfortable while remaining on the outside, migrant labour continues to remain nameless and invisible through this massive humanitarian crisis.

Privilege allowed us to plan and implement a comfortable lockdown and tune out the world as we please, but for those on the other side, a violently opposite reality has continued to unfold for almost two months now, and home is an impossibly long journey away.

Seeing the stream of #MigrantsOnTheRoad articles and video bytes, some of the questions on everyone’s mind now may be — Who are these people making these dangerous journeys? What do they do in cities? Where do they live? And why are they so desperate to leave these cities now?

With the rapid growth of cities, our urban population has expanded at a high rate, and much of this comprises migrant workers. According to the Census ‘when a person is enumerated in census at a different place than his/her place of birth, she/he is considered a migrant’. The 2011 Census had revealed that inter-state migrants comprise about 450 million and some estimates reveal that about 120 million are rural-to-urban migrant workers who are mostly informally employed. They are the semi-skilled and unskilled workers, whose micro-knowledge, expertise and efforts further the flow of work in industries, organisations and households. They are daily-wage earners working in the construction industry, in factories and industries. They are contractual workers who do all the heavylifting, from paint and repair jobs, to electrical work, plumbing, tailoring, furniture repair and an endless list of such seemingly small-sounding but vital jobs. Without the migrant workers who do these vital jobs, it would be impossible to produce the goods and services that get bought and sold to keep our economy running. Most workers are paid minimum wages, just enough to cover food and other basic expenses (rent, children’s schooling, medical expenses, etc), making them most susceptible to suffer from any shocks. The story of their inequality is not a new one, deepening with every decade. As of 2017, 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1 per cent increase in their wealth.

Cities that thrive on migrant workers and their contributions are today unable to address their needs

The pandemic has dealt them a devastating blow, causing unimaginable grief and tension. Moreover, it has placed them in a debt cycle (being unable to earn now, many are taking loans for home rent, to travel home, to procure daily necessities, etc. and from informal sources that charge high interest rates), setting them on a frightening downward spiral.

Given that the city has been their work and home site, what is driving them away, and especially during such tough times? The lack of access to underpaid work and thereby lack of access to food, yes. But a deeper reason lies in where they are forced to live, where they can’t afford to live anymore.

Our cities are notorious for the kind of housing and habitats it offers to those who earn minimum or less than minimum wages. A 100–250 sq ft house without access to water, toilets and a sanitary environment is what most migrant workers are able to access. The more menial the job, the lower the wage, the lower one’s form of housing access.

Many workers spend a large part of the day outside these homes, and when they are forced to occupy these miniscule spaces for weeks on end at this time, with no food, no toilets, not enough ventilation, and with no sight of when normalcy will return, trying to return to a place of support seems a reasonable ask.

Moreover, many migrant workers are also forced to leave these homes now as they are unable to pay the rent needed. If you don’t earn, you can’t afford to live even in the worst form of housing the city offers you.

The 100+ migrant worker deaths uncover a deep system of inequalities that push hard working citizens out of cities, factories, work sites and households that have never valued their labour. Moreover, in the absence of proper implementation of key legislations which could have prevented their exploitation and ensured fair and decent working conditions, such as the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, and the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, migrant workers have been left completely adrift, and almost no one is accountable for their misfortunes!

These reasons, coupled with 55 days of almost inaction, poor governance, food insecurity, late starting of trains, already impoverished migrants being made to pay for tickets, repeated instances of misinformation, have ultimately caused workers to take matters in their own hands and try to make it home at any cost.

‘In our houses we have nothing to eat. It’s been 2 months’, says Vishal Chauhan of Nalasopara, mentioning how a few of them have somehow raised Rs 3,000 each to pay for their truck ride home to Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, a 3-day excruciating ride away.

‘None of us will come back. Why will we come again from our village?’ says the wife of a migrant worker, who has had almost no food to feed the family over the past two months!

‘They (the family) took loans from various places … at 5 per cent interest … ’ says a saree embroidery worker, the sole earning member of his family, mentioning how Rs 15,000 was raised to help the family travel home. This is another burden on his head now, which he has to repay after making the journey home.

Each story tells of a new indignity suffered and how we have failed millions of our own people.

The government has reached out in the last few days with some measures. However, most of them are aimed at the long-term, rather than what can be done in the here and now. Current inter-state travel arrangements also need many improvements, to avoid further confusion and lack of compliance. It is not that nothing is being done, but most efforts are too little, too late, and with every passing day we are hurtling towards larger losses if we do not take more pre-emptive steps.

Two faces of the same lockdown

Going by the Census definition, most of us are migrants within different cities we currently live in. But access to capital and networks has meant that a lockdown sees us at home with all our comforts, while another has been robbed of a family income and worse, dignity, overnight.

For them, these 55 days began with just a 4-hour notice that gave no time to prepare for the days ahead, no savings to buy food, uncertainty all around and empty assurances. From being proud contributors to the economy, thousands of migrant workers have been reduced to begging overnight, queuing up for meals every few hours, or borrowing whatever money they can for an uncertain and often dangerous journey home. We need to support the needs of migrant workers now, because they have been robbed of almost everything most unfairly. They are voiceless, but we can raise our voices for them so decision makers can, at the least, take steps to ensure this is a dignified and safe passage home for them:

Only 1.4 million have reached home so far! Of course not every migrant is looking for a way back to the village … but we can safely look at the numbers and visuals of people on the roads to say — the crisis is far from over.

Doel Jaikishen