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Migrant labourers in the time of coronavirus lockdown: A focus on the non-agricultural sector in India

(Fiona) Debarati Choudhury - Photo by to

Photo by today mynews on Flickr.

When India announced its abrupt, unprepared lockdown suspending most economic activities, it made a distinction between the population that can safely be quarantined in their homes and those who cannot, showing complete dismissal and apathy towards the migrant labourers. This pandemic, unlike others, has been transmitted from the top. The virus was brought to India mostly by Indians who had returned from abroad in the past few months. This was not a disease that started spreading from the unhygienic rural and urban slums in India. The impact of the virus lays bare the class divide as those who transmitted the virus are not those most affected by it. Disturbing images of thousands of migrant labourers demonstrate how devalued their lives are, from being stranded at the bus terminal, to being sprayed with disinfectants as they reach their homelands, and even dying on their way home.


Non-agricultural migrant labourers: Precarity of jobs and vulnerabilities


A majority of migrant labourers in India experience what are called internal seasonal and circular migration, within the territory of India, across states. According to 2007-08 data of the National Sample Survey Organisation, they comprise a population of 156 million. This article will focus on a specific group within their larger population, the non-agricultural migrant labourers (around 45 million), 25-30% of whom are currently residing in rural areas, and the rest in peri-urban and urban areas.


Migrant labourers in India engaged in informal occupations, and especially the ones in the non-agricultural sector, have no job security, social security benefits, and often no formal contract of employment, while being victims of immensely harsh working conditions in construction sites, brick kilns, etc. The social composition of this population is dominated by scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and religious minorities. For most of the seasonal migrants, their caste denies them access to equal citizenship rights in their place of birth. Further, when they work in a state where the language is foreign to them, it leads to social fragmentation due to communication barriers. They end up becoming ‘nowhere citizens’, though the economy is paralysed without them. The interstate migrant population is also heavily dominated by single/widowed women and often families with children. Though it is not possible to statistically capture this heterogeneity, the varying and underlying vulnerabilities are evident.


The Great Indian Lockdown


The lockdown in India has triggered a huge exodus across the country, despite the constraints facing migrants, such as interstate fencing. This has restricted them from going back to their villages where they could at least fall back on agriculture for minimum subsistence. The response of the government of India and their narrative to restrict the movement of migrant labourers and force them into shelter camps, stem from a casteist and classist understanding that the migrant labourers engage in 'dirty work' and hence are a threat to public health. 


However, there still has been a lot of interstate movement, mostly on foot. The labourers who were able to complete the journey home are also facing discrimination from the neighbours in their village due to their caste backgrounds. Official data places the number of migrant labourers returning to their homelands at 0.8 million, but informal figures estimate at least 3 million. According to recent research, more than 740 people have died across India since the lockdown was imposed due to reasons other than the disease, the most tragic incidents being when two groups of 5 and 16 were run over by trains, as they fell asleep on the rail-tracks after what had been a painfully exhausting walk.


The government claims that 9.8 million migrant labourers are in shelter camps, where they are being provided with daily meals. Further, around 5.5 million are being taken care of by the state governments, 3 million by NGOs and another 1.5 million by respective employers. Many of these people were forcibly taken into shelter camps while they were on their way back.


Still, a huge portion of their population has not been able to either go back or take refuge in shelter camps. At least 25-30 million labourers are still living in and around their workplaces. 60-65% of circular and seasonal migrants live in their worksites or in temporary constructions around the worksite. When the shops and offices are closed, their living spaces are constrained. Around 25-30% live in tenant spaces, where they again are left vulnerable because many landlords have been particularly stringent in restricting their tenancy amidst the fear of transmission of the disease. The remaining 10% live in public spaces like railway stations, footpaths, public grounds, and rely on public facilities for drinking water, for example. These are the most vulnerable, because now they have lost access to the bare necessities for survival.


The government response has been dismal to the entire crisis in general, but specifically to the concerns of migrant labourers. The cash transfer benefits to the people through Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, Jan Dhan Yojana, as well as the Public Distribution System (PDS) discriminate against short term migrants for several reasons, including that many do not possess government identification cards like Aadhaar, which is compulsory for accessing the benefits, or they do not own ATM cards to withdraw cash even if it gets deposited in their accounts. The central government announced special trains for migrant labourers to get back home after 40 days of lockdown, but the situation has been chaotic, with state governments leading different approaches. Migrant labourers from Odisha cannot travel home because they don’t have an Aadhaar ID. Ironically, they missed out on Aadhaar enrolment because they were away from their villages for work. The Karnataka government announced that it would not facilitate the travel of migrant labourers back home on the grounds that their labour was needed to restart the economy. This declaration attracted widespread criticism and has been suspended for the time being. Tamil Nadu has used the police to ‘persuade’ labourers to return to their workplace camps. Uttar Pradesh has suspended almost all labour laws for a period of three years to boost investment. This is nothing but an attack on fundamental rights of the labourers. 


The way out


The migrant labourers have been treated as collateral damage in the entire crisis mitigation, but this needs to change. Much larger relief packages need to be announced for them. A minimum amount of 7000 INR should be provided per household, in addition to free food rations to at least 80% of Indian households for the next 3 months. Policy needs to take into consideration that when the pandemic crisis eases, a lot of migrant labourers will not have any work for almost the entirety of the next financial year. There needs to be an expansion of the Rural Employment Guarantee Act, in addition to the introduction of the Urban Employment Guarantee. Social protection, such as minimum wage guarantees, must be available for all, including regular health checkups, decent living conditions, sanitation and water, access to Employees State Insurance, Provident Fund, etc. Free transportation needs to be arranged for all migrant labourers to return home. 


In the long run, there is an urgent need to reprioritise government expenditure, reorienting it toward the lives and livelihoods of migrant labourers and ensuring them regular wages. There should be a comprehensive migration policy that would ensure that the migrant labourers have access to basic needs of sustenance and travel allowances for their journeys between their home and the cities. It is a shame that even after being witness to the largest migration during the 1947 partition, India does not prioritise the needs of its migrants.

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Debarati Choudury

Debarati Choudhury is pursuing her research in public policy and social conflict. Her domain of study is situated at the intersection of caste, class and gender, and associated vulnerabilities in the unique context of India.

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