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This article is written by R.Kaviya, pursuing IBC Executive certificate course from Lawsikho. This article talks about the problems which the migrants face and what are the steps that the government undertakes to resolve this issue.

Introduction

Since the announcement of lockdown in India, news channels and other social media platforms have been portraying disturbing pictures of people walking their way back to their hometowns without access to basic necessities. They are the migrant labourers who are worst hit by the shutdown enforced. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet has also expressed his concern over the migrant worker’s issues. 

Migrants- the Most Vulnerable Class

According to the website of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, a person is considered as migrant when a he/she is enumerated in Census at a different place than his/her place of birth. Migrants and their families are the marginalized and vulnerable groups which are experiencing the worst economic hardships as a result of containment measures. According to the census, the level of urbanization in India has increased to 31.16% in 2011. There have been estimates that the magnitude of inter-state migration in India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 pegs that the total number of internal migrants in the country is around 139 million.

Importance of Migrant Population 

Internal migration is essential for economic growth and development as it enables the allocation of labour to more productive opportunities across sectors and benefits the region that people migrate to and also the place where they migrate from. Yet, interstate migration in India is less than in other countries at a similar stage of economic development, studies show. This is largely because migrants contribute to the economic growth of their destination states but get few social welfare benefits there.

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Migrants are also like all other people in the host region and face the same health threats from COVID-19 but they are also subject to particular vulnerabilities. Lack of access to essential services, discrimination and isolation based on language and culture; lack of migrant-inclusive health policies, legal and regulatory barriers, etc. put them in jeopardy. 

Is the Government Efficient in Protecting the Rights of Migrant Labourers?

We need a holistic approach to answer this question so as to hit upon a way out of this  plight of migrant labours. In affirmative to the above question, the three branches of Indian Government i.e. the legislative, executive and judiciary have been taking significant initiatives to protect the rights of the migrant workforce. 

Legislative’s Role

identified its responsibility and enacted important legislations to protect their rights in light of the inadequacy of other general labour legislations. Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979; Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008 and The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation Of Employment And Conditions Of Service) Act, 1996 are the specific legislations which were enacted. But unfortunately, State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 is one of the least enforced legislations in the country and whether the intended purpose of the Act has been attained is again an important question that needs to be answered and the same is discussed in the later parts of the article. 

Judiciary’s role 

With regard to the actions of the other two branches of the Government, two writ petitions which were filed in the Supreme Court of India are noteworthy.

Alakh Alok Srivastava v. UOI

In the PIL filed by Mr. Alakh Alok Srivastava, he prayed for issuance of a direction to the Union of India for immediate identification of the moving/stranded migrant workers and to shift them to the government shelter homes or accommodation and provide them with proper food, clean drinking water and medicines under medical supervision, in a dignified manner. A composite plan for rehabilitation of aggrieved workers including free transportation, one-month statutory wage to each migrant and one-month free ration after the lockdown was over; setting up of a “Migrant Labourer Crisis Management Board as a Common Gateway” for the supervision and monitoring of the welfare measures to avoid such crisis in the future; establishment of a 24-Hour Multi-Lingual Call Centre as a pivotal point for providing accurate information and effective grievance for redressal to migrant workers in a crisis situation in future were all prayed for by the petitioner.

Harsh Mander & Anr. v. Union of India

In another writ petition filed by social activist, Mr. Harsh Mander and Ms. Anjali Srivastav, petitioners sought immediate payment of minimum wages to migrant workers and poverty-stricken self-employed people. This petition pertained to the order issued by Ministry of Home Affairs whereby it directed all employers to pay wages to the migrant workers, and that their landlords shall not evict them. The PIL claimed that this was an insufficient measure, and the Central and State Authority should ensure the wages to be paid to the migrant workers at the place they were at, during the lockdown. The petitioners raised concerns about safety of about 15 Lakh migrant labourers over-crowding at shelter homes for food and availability of ration at the shelter homes set up for migrant workers. In both the writ petitions, the State filed its status report referring to which it defended and detailed the initiatives taken by the Central and various State Governments to protect the rights of migrant workers amidst the apocalypse. 

The Solicitor General stated that they have done what was priority first and further referred to a report showing transfer of an amount of money to people’s accounts via direct benefit transfer and explained that the Government was also catering to their financial needs. The Court was satisfied with the Government’s status report and eventually both the petitions were disposed.

Executive- few remarkable initiatives of the Government 

  1. Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana whereby poor people were to be provided with rations; 
  2. financial assistance to construction workers were to be provided through Welfare Fund for Building and Other Construction Workers; 
  3. relief camps; 
  4. mandatory directions issued to all employers to make payment of wages to their workers at their workplaces on the due date without any deduction;
  5. directions issued to landlords not to compel migrant workers and other poor people to pay the rent with strict orders to the district administration to take action against violating landlords;
  6. advisory issued by Government of India for authorities to effectively deal with rumour spreading to prevent unnecessary panic and fear among the migrants; 
  7. plan to counsel migrant workers to deal with the panic state of mind; 
  8. setting up of helpline number for helping the poor workers, etc. 

Though the efforts of the Government are really appreciable, it is undeniable that we are falling short at some point from attaining the ultimate goal of protecting the rights of the migrant population.

Has the Welfare Schemes reached the Target Group?

According to the report published by Stranded Workers Action Network, a group of volunteers connecting relief to workers stranded across India due to the COVID-19 lockdown, about 50 percent of the workers had rations left for less than 1 day which has remained unchanged since the first phase of the lockdown. It increased to about 54 percent for a few days after 14th April. More than 97 percent (out of 10,383 surveyed) have not received any cash relief from the government. With no cash-relief for migrants, 64% have less than Rs. 100 left with them and in many instances it was reported that the money transferred to their bank accounts was also deducted by banks as penalty for not maintaining minimum balance. More than 99%of the self-employed have had no earnings during this period. These include street vendors, rickshaw pullers. 

Moreover, the financial package (Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana) had nothing to offer for the migrant workers. Jan Sahas database of approximately 60,000 workers, suggests that 17% of workers do not have a bank account, hence will be excluded from gaining any benefit from the financial package announced. It was also found that the bank accounts are inactive for at least 30-40% of labourers who have accounts.

While there was an announcement of some cash support for construction workers, in reality, most construction workers are not registered and hence not even eligible to receive any cash support. Hence, the central government’s announcement of aid to construction workers from the cess collected by labour welfare boards means nothing to the millions of stranded migrants who are not registered. As on April 26th, only about 6% of all those who have reached out to the group have received their full wages during the lockdown and about 78% have not been paid at all. This excludes the self-employed workers. Some who have been given ration by the employers have been told that the money for the rations will be deducted and a few workers have also been threatened not to complain. With neither food nor cash, migrant workers have been pushed to the brink of starvation, alarming levels of vulnerability and extreme indignity. Though food is the very basic necessity, it alone cannot do good without some financial assistance.

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Possible Solutions and Recommendations

Stringent enforcement of law and legislative reformThere is a statutory obligation to record migrant labour in many legislations that is binding on the central and state governments such as the National Disaster Management Act (2005), the Interstate Migrant Worker Act (1979), and the Street Vendors Act (2014), among others. Further, there are other wage laws which mandate that workers are entitled to the payment of full and timely wages, to displacement allowance, a home journey allowance including payment of wages during the journey. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure compliance of these laws for a safe and secure working environment for migrant workers. The majority of stranded workers were not able to recall the name of the main builder or company they have been working for. Their only link to the city or town where they are working is through their contractor. They were only able to name their contractor, not even the name of the registered company of the contractor.

In most cases, contractors have switched off their phones leaving workers to fend for themselves. Though it is their duty to ensure regular payment of wages to such workers, contractors cannot be blamed entirely because they themselves are not in a sound position to enforce the rights of migrants. In one instance, Salim Sheikh,  a small-time contractor managed to arrange for grains for 50 of his workers and he reached out to SWAN and said that he had not been able to pay the labour wages as due to the lockdown, his business has taken a severe hit. Hence, the Government must ensure that every primary employer strictly adheres to paying the wages to their contractors and to the workers. Labour legislations, especially the Interstate Migrant Worker Act (1979), need to be updated in order to avoid such issues in the future. The OECD Economic survey report published in December 2019 makes a key recommendation to enact more flexible and simpler labour laws.

Use of technology to improve efficiency- Bihar was the first state to introduce an app-based transfer of Rs. 1,000 to migrants stranded outside the state and Jharkhand introduced a similar app through which stranded migrants can get up-to Rs.2,000. Through this app, these two states have been able to provide some immediate relief to stranded migrants and despite the difficulties, 13 lakh people have successfully registered on the Bihar government app.  Such applications prove to be extremely useful and if introduced to the whole nation, this will enable the Government to channelize the rations and financial assistance more effectively. Even if not introduced as a whole new app, an updation of the existing Arogya Setu app to include such features would be beneficial.

Supply of rations- Numerous academics, economists and activists have also appealed to the government to provide rations by using the stocks from the FCI godowns, universalise food security and provide cash relief to workers at the least. The Tamil Nadu Government serves free food at all its Amma canteens throughout the lockdown. Schemes like this would help not only the migrants but everyone below the poverty line.

Safer transportation-The Ministry of Home Affairs order issued on 29th April allows migrant workers to travel back to their hometowns but this needs much more clarity. The order as it stands only mentions travel by road. Special trains should be organised for inter-state migrants instead of buses because of the large number of migrants and long distances. Also trains will be less costly and must be done on Indian Railways/ Central government expenses and not by state governments.  Collecting bus fare from them would make the whole idea of providing transportation meaningless and the Government shall make arrangements for free transportation.

A comprehensive approach to this crisis has implications for national and local public health, housing, and economic policies. Further, it is important that migrants are included in measures that are being introduced to mitigate the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. 

Need to protect their right to live with dignity- Food Security, Wage Compensation, Shelters, Housing and Transportation are important relief measures which will help alleviate some of the problems faced by migrants in the short to medium term. However, it is important to deliberate on the dignity of the lives of the workers and migrants in the longer term. In one instance, a migrant worker stated that those who went to provide food clicked pictures with all of them but only two of them were provided with food. Similarly, in many other instances, the dignity of migrants haven been disregarded. This clearly shows that the Government is not solely responsible for their plight.

Conclusion

A pandemic is not the time for blame game as everybody including the Government, health care professionals and NGOs are all striving hard to tackle the situation. In many places, civil society organisations render catering and delivery services and several individuals have really stepped up by contributing funds, rations and cooked food. In Delhi/Gurgaon and parts of Tamil Nadu, it has been noted that the landlords have provided their tenants, mostly migrant workers and daily wage labourers, with food and ration, in addition to relaxing the payment date for the rent. In some places in Tamil Nadu, local grocery store owners have given ration supplies on loan to migrant workers from West Bengal. The worst affected, the migrant workers themselves, have shown great generosity and shared their rations with those in need. Amidst all the disheartening things happening during the pandemic, instances like this provide us an affirmation that we can overcome this if we all stand united (adhering to social distancing norms) with humanity.


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