When Governmental neglect has ensured that India’s workers find themselves wandering the streets during a pandemic. The constitutional mirror can do nothing but cast a shameful reflection.
PERHAPS the most human face of the COVID-19 pandemic in India is the faces of the millions of migrant workers who have decided to walk back to their villages on foot. When India announced its lockdown (the first of many) on the March 24, all transport was shut down and the borders of India’s many states were closed. Along with the shutdown on transport, businesses were asked to close. Construction activity came to a halt. With this, the livelihoods of many of India’s migrant workers were also put in a precarious position.
India’s unequal growth over the last three decades has seen a huge wave of people migrating from less prosperous to the more prosperous states search of work. This migration is temporary and relates to the job. India even has a law on the federal level to regulate the movement of this labour from one state to another. The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act 1979 requires that migrant labour be registered, be provided with basic facilities such as food, boarding and shelter. The law also provides for a return journey allowance for the migrant worker to return once the job is complete.
In terms of the Census of 2011, India has approximately 139 Million Inter-State migrants in the country. This is nearly 10% of its population. When the lockdown was announced, the work that paid these workers also stopped. With transport networks shut down, migrant labour could not go home, and they were left stranded. States began to hurriedly try and provide for them. However, the implementation of this relief, left a lot to be desired. An all India survey conducted a month into the lockdown found that 96% of the workers did not get rations from the Government and 90% did not get paid. This resulted in many of these workers making the journey on foot to go back home. They started walking within days of the lockdown being announced making journeys of hundreds of kilometres.
Earlier this month, 16 workers from a group of twenty, died after they were run over by a cargo train. These exhausted workers had fallen asleep on the tracks thinking train services were shut. They were making the journey home. Last Friday, India’s Supreme Court refused to entertain a plea that sought a direction to the Government to provide them with shelter. The petition also asked for directions for local authorities to identify and assist stranded workers. While dismissing the petition, the court said, “How do you stop people who want to keep walking? Can anyone go and stop them? Impossible for anyone to stop them”.
Perhaps if food, housing, and shelter had been adequately delivered in a timely manner, people wouldn’t want to keep walking. It needs to be clarified here in May the Government did decide to send these workers back home by way of special trains. But this too, in what has become a running trope in this pandemic in India, created more chaos than it solved. With there being absolute chaos about whether migrant workers would be required to pay for the train fare. More chaos ensured in the state of Karnataka, where shortly after a meeting with the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India, the Government announced a cancellation of the special trains. While no official explanation for the cancellation came, a twitter thread by the Chief Minister said that “Barring the red zones, business, construction work and industrial activities have to be resumed. In this context, it was explained that unnecessary travel of the migrant workers has to be controlled.” After more than two months of waiting without relief, when it came time for the migrants to board a train home, the Government cancelled it effectively to try and force them back to work.
After informing the court that travel arrangements had been made by the Government, at Last Friday’s hearing, India’s Solicitor General said, “Migrants must have patience to wait for their turn”. But in the absence of food, clothing and shelter, patience may be a far-flung virtue for people who are suffering daily under this lockdown.
When India made her “tryst with destiny” in 1947, she declared to the world that the future of India’s Government would be done for the upliftment of India’s poor and downtrodden. As outlined in the preamble to the constitution, the aim of the Indian state was to secure for all its citizens “Justice, social, economic and political”. India’s founding values are the values of social justice. When Governmental neglect has ensured that India’s workers find themselves wandering the streets during a pandemic. The constitutional mirror can do nothing but cast a shameful reflection.
[Ajay Kumar is an Advocate practising at the Bombay High Court. He also has a MA in philosophy. He writes on law & politics. He may be reached at [email protected]]
Note: This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own.
Also read: Plea in SC to allow migrant workers to return to their homes after being tested for COVID-19