70 days, 4 lockdowns and over 1 month since Shramik trains began, the migrant workers’ crisis remains
On 24 March 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the nation of 1.3 billion just 4 hours to implement a three-week lockdown. Since then, there have been three more lockdowns, each ending with the easing of some more restrictions, as the pandemic’s health and economic implications deepen simultaneously. On the verge of lockdown 5.0, learning to live with the virus seems to be the new normal.
In the past few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed a massive humanitarian crisis, that of the plight of migrant workers. Nearly 10 weeks now since lockdown 1.0, they are the ones dealt the hardest blow by this decision, and their struggles are far from over.
Numbering about 100 million (or 20 per cent of the total workforce), it is undeniable that migrant workers form a huge chunk of the working population in Indian cities. However, the largely unregulated nature of their employment has continued to deprive them of just wages and working conditions. Being underpaid, migrant workers have always been at the tipping point, just making enough to stay afloat. Their labour is crucial to keep industries running, yet they remain an almost invisible presence in cities. For instance, while in Mumbai informal settlements house 45 per cent of the city’s population, they just occupy 12 per cent of the city’s developable land. Millions of these workers live in these settlements with a lack of basic services, such as electricity, water, toilets etc.
As lockdown 1.0 proceeded, given the income uncertainty, and no assurance on when work would restart again, most migrant workers naturally started planning on how they could reach their place of support, their village. The incidents in Mumbai and Surat at the end of lockdown 1.0 were telling of the frustration that had reached its peak and workers awaiting any means to leave. Many began to leave, having to hide from authorities at tolls and borders since all ‘non-essential’ movement was restricted between and within states. Some, like Asif, a migrant worker who had just started a fruit juice selling business, was keen to stay back if any employment could be found, as his new business had already placed him in debt.
A never-ending long line of #MigrantWorkers waiting at the #Mumbai–#Nashik Expressway to complete their applications and find a vehicle that can take them home! #MigrantsOnTheRoad #MigrantLabour #MigrantsLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/8ru7EMmVKO
— YUVA (@OfficialYUVA) May 18, 2020
In the days that followed during lockdown 2.0, with no sign of public transport, hardly anyone to support them and with no wages and food to meet their daily needs, migrant workers and their families took matters into their own hands. Many more started walking the unimaginable distance hundreds of kilometres home. Gradually, reports also grew of people taking on any rides they could afford towards home (on tempos, buses, trucks, etc.), even though many of them were dangerously packed or they would be dropped just a part of the whole distance home. Some workers used their last remaining money to pay for these rides home.
For those who remained back in the city and were in dire need of food, most families preferred access to rations to tide over a longer period of time with a little more security. Access to cooked meals often meant queuing up for hours daily, without any surety of getting food, not to mention the sharp blow to people’s dignity, from being hardworking breadwinners to begging and pleading daily for basic nourishment.
At the end of lockdown 2.0, i.e., on 1 May, Shramik trains were finally started for migrant workers and there was a fresh lease of hope in being able to travel back with dignity. However, the online registration and other formalities needed soon proved difficult for thousands of migrant workers, and chaos ensued again as large crowds queued up at police stations to register, or pay middlemen to complete this step for them.
With trains continuing to ply, more numbers of migrant workers were able to return home. However, lockdown 3.0 and 4.0 infamously recorded a number of concerns with regard to these shramik trains. News of multiple train diversions, the regrettable deaths of many migrant workers on the way home, payment for train fare, red tapism involved in securing a seat, has caused further anguish. As of 29 May, 52 lakh migrant workers have returned home. However, it is too premature to say that the crisis is over.
To cite two examples — on 20 May, hundreds of migrant workers were brought to Suncity Ground, Vasai West, via state transport buses, to head to stations later in the day for going home. Yet, after hours of waiting in the sun, the people again boarded buses to get back to their city homes, as there were not enough train seats.
On 26 May, thousands of migrant workers were brought to Suncity Ground, Vasai West, via buses to board trains later that day. However, after hours of waiting in the sun, many migrant workers again boarded buses to be sent back to where they were picked up from, given the lack of train seats. Nearly 25,000 migrant workers crowded at the same ground hoping to be able to get a seat on a train home on that day. Many migrant workers claimed they had completed the online registration a few times already but not heard back.
DEVASTATING! A 25,000 strong crowd of #MigrantWorkers at Suncity Ground, #Vasai West, on 26 May. Panic and stress are natural in this state, but clear communication on trains and seats could help avoid such scenes. Only 7 trains left on this day, carrying approx 11,000 people. pic.twitter.com/PV2dScVD2j
— YUVA (@OfficialYUVA) May 27, 2020
Our team, present on the ground to provide basic relief, tried to tell some of the families to go home and assured them a month’s supply of ration. However, people were adamant that they wanted to go home. Fear of the disease, lack of social support networks in the city, and pressure from families at home to make it back at any cost are driving them to take all risks now. By end of day, about 11,000 of them could board trains (check tweet above), but the rest were driven off the ground and have been staying on the nearby streets since then. Our team has receive news that state authorities are noting their details to try and board them on subsequent trains.
As we enter lockdown 5.0, given the high numbers of migrant workers in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, it is too early to say that all migrant workers have reached home. The roads are not empty of those who are waiting, and many are still making desperate calls to find ways to go home. Given how invisible migrant workers remain in cities, and how they have been failed on too many counts over the past ten weeks, stronger efforts are needed to reach them now and help them back towards a path of sustenance and dignity. Thorough and coordinated action by multiple stakeholders at all levels can only help us arrive at a better estimation of the current situation to understand how to effectively reach and support those migrant workers who want to travel home. The Supreme Court’s suo motu proceedings in the midst of political tussles over this issue is a welcome move. Strict implementation of Supreme Court directives would greatly help distressed migrant workers travel home with dignity.