Swarna Latha R., a practicing lawyer of Madras High Court, expresses her opinion on the untold sufferings of the inter-state migrant labourers and the responsibility of the government for their safe return and rehabilitation.
In the wake of Corona induced lockdown, while the elite was hitting vessels and burning candles in balconies, the desperate migrant workers have been forced to flee the cities and take up the long walk home to survive the pandemic. One look at the dailies will tell us the sordid tale and untold sufferings of the hapless inter-state migrant labourers. Their yearning to go back home and the lack of possibility of integration with the designation state due to shutdown of public transport compelled the inter-state migrants to take up their long journey on foot.
DISEASE OR HUNGER?
Several gory incidents of innocent workers, men and women with infants and children boarding trucks like cattle and also the death of these marching migrants succumbing to hunger and heat reveal the widespread apathy and discrimination of the policymakers. Bereft of social security benefits and no labour legislation to protect migrant working class, they are completely dependent on their employers for their livelihood. The present lockdown has made hunger and relief the need of the hour. If they remained still, they died of the disease or died of hunger and poverty. If they chose to retreat, they maimed and starved unto death unable to complete their journey home.
THE INVISIBLE GUEST-WORKERS
Why did the Government lose sight of the plight of the floating population? Had they become invisible? Is it because they belong to the most vulnerable section of the unorganized sector? Do the elite and the middle-class migrants face a crisis the same way migrant working class do? This reverse migration is again a representation of the class struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Are we moving from a Democratic welfare state to a draconian feudalistic state? If not, the Government which brought Indians working overseas through special flight arrangements, turned a blind eye to the walking inter-state migrants? Is it the rule of law or rule of the rich? Is it not a severe blow to the equality jurisprudence embedded under Article 14 of the Constitution?
THE UNFRIENDLY FAREWELL AND COLD WELCOME
In announcing the lockdown without prior notice, the central Government had invoked the Disaster Management Act, which overrode state governments’ powers. But the onus of transporting and rehabilitating the miserable inter-state migrant workers was shifted to the State Government. The Central Government washed off its hands with a total disregard for these innocent people. Neither the sending states allow and arrange for the safe return nor did the receiving states welcome the retreating population. Many have died of exhaustion or become victims of road and rail accidents as they tread thousands of kilometres on foot. Is it not the responsibility of the District Collector to make necessary arrangements for their safe return and rehabilitation?
RESPONSE OF THE JUDICIARY
The Indian Supreme Court, renowned for the effective exercise of its epistolary jurisdiction, absolved itself of Constitutional duty of protecting the rights of the people. Hearing the Public Interest Litigations challenging the inhumane treatment of stranded workers, the Supreme Court didn’t relent to pass any effective order. The unmoved Supreme Court remarked with a high point of insensitivity, “it was not possible for the Court to monitor who is walking and who is not walking. How can we stop if they sleep on tracks? ”
However, the stories of hardships faced by the marginalized stirred the sympathetic consciousness of the High Courts in India. The Madras High Court called the string of pathetic incidents, a human tragedy and referring to the Aurangabad incident where 16 migrant workers were killed by a gushing train. The High Courts of Bombay, Gujarat and Delhi also did their bit by holding the State Governments responsible for the rehabilitation of the migrant labourers.
After severe criticism for charging fare for transit, the Central Government aided their relief and repatriation, through Shramik Special trains and free bus services. Though 3840 Shramik trains were accelerated from May 1, death of 80 persons enroute was reported. Corona did not Kill them; Starvation did. Who will bring the voices of these invisible citizens to the forefront? A scathing letter unsigned by the senior advocates of the Supreme Court pointed out the indifference of the Supreme Court and wrote that the current migrant crisis is symptomatic of how the Constitutional promises of equality, life, freedom and dignity have been totally ignored by the Government in passing arbitrary executive orders.
While so, the empathetic Supreme Court of Nepal has upheld the dignity of the migrant workers and rightly ordered that if there was a way to facilitate the commute of the people so willing to return to their native places, then the state should do everything at its disposal. Further, to ensure food and medical facilities enroute and also to explore the possibilities of rehabilitating the migrant workers.
Better late than never. At last, the Supreme Court took Suo Moto cognizance of the matter and issued notice to the Government that the administrative lapses cannot be ruled out and also directed the Government to transport them back to their native villages by providing shramik trains within 24 hours of the request. The top Court has also ordered to specify the schemes of employment of these migrant workers post lockdown.
MIGRANT-SPECIFIC WELFARE LEGISLATION
As per the 2011 census, there are 65 million inter-state migrants, of which a third are workers. Many of the stranded workers could neither afford to get one square meal a day nor the benefits of public distribution system. It is this desperation that is driving these migrant laborers to undertake the arduous and bizarre journey. The Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families recognizes that ‘the State Parties concerned shall as appropriate consult and co-operate with a view to promoting sound, equitable and humane conditions in connection with international migration of workers and members of their families.
In this respect, due regard shall be paid not only to labour needs and resources but also to the social, economic, cultural and other needs of migrant workers and members of their families involved, as well as to the consequences of such migration for the communities concerned. The acute state of these migrants today is only due to the disregard and neglect for them during normal days. Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 mandates the contractors who employ more than five migrant workers to obtain a license after registering at both the ends. However, this doesn’t apply to employers employing five or less migrant workers. Had there been any welfare scheme in each state which accommodated this highly mobile workforce, India would not have witnessed the mass exodus and an enormous number of hunger deaths. Inter-state migrants lose even their entitlement of Public Distribution System when they cross the borders of their native state as it’s made available only to permanent residents in a state. The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme refashioned by the Central Government as a relief measure for migrant workers, also covers only a minuscule of migrants as most of them do not hold the card in hand.
It’s imperative upon the Government to enact equitable policies for inter-state migrants in terms of labour policies, medical facilities, hygiene, education and social welfare. It’s high time that the Government comes up with a comprehensive migrant-specific labour welfare legislation making it mandatory for the employers to register their names in a portal extending the benefits of social security to them as well. Nevertheless, the lives that starved unto death in the fight against Corona will ever be etched in our memories as a black mark in the history of the largest Democratic country in the Government.
Swarna Latha R. is a practicing advocate at Madras High Court.
IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.