Manasvi Bhatt, a fourth year student of University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun analyses the sufferings of the migrant labourers and the responsibility of the government for their safe return and rehabilitation.

INTRODUCTION

In December 2019, the first case of Covid-19 was registered in China. Soon the outbreak of virus spread across the world. India, to fight the virus, was under lockdown from March 25, 2020. When all the citizens of our country were locked in their houses and enjoying the quality time with their families. Doctors, police officers and all the essential services were working day and night to fight against the deadly virus. But in the midst of this, the government failed to consider a large section of the society who suffered the most: migrant workers. For decades people have moved to different cities, states and countries in search of better life opportunities. People coming from villages and small towns migrated to metro cities. We see them everywhere, yet we failed miserably to acknowledge them.

THE BEGINNING OF THE CRISIS

The Prime Minister announced the first lockdown from March 25, 2020, closing all the factories, industries, hotels and restaurants. Thousands of people lost their jobs and were left with no money. According to the 2011 census, 455 million Indians, or one-third of the population could be classified as migrants.[1] The improperly planned lockdown forced these workers to go to their native village either on foot or bicycle. Hunger and no jobs led to the exodus of these migrant workers from various parts of the country. As their source of income ended abruptly, they were left with little savings their hand. But these savings were not sufficient for them to reach their native villages. They had to sell their valuables to reach their destination. Deprived of jobs and transportation, these workers started walking their way with either no money or little money and no food. For them it was like walking on a two-sided sword, on the one hand, they could stay at their rented houses in the city and depend on government and citizens for their survival, or they could walk to home suffering atrocities and policemen in their way. To avoid police interrogations, they chose to walk on dangerous paths, and some have even lost their lives. On May 8, 2020, 16 migrant workers were killed when goods carrying train passed over them. They were walking towards home and slept on or near the tracks. Many reports have come regarding the desperate measures taken by migrant workers trying to reach home and how their life ended in this dangerous journey. According to reports, 14 migrant workers were killed in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh on May 13, 2020. The police said six migrant workers were killed in Uttar Pradesh when a state transport bus ran over them, and PTI reported that eight were killed when the bus in which they were travelling collided with a truck in Madhya Pradesh.[2] On May 15 morning, NDTV reported that six migrant workers were killed in 3 separate incidents in Uttar Pradesh.  According to data from Save Life Foundation phase, 3 of lockdown contributed to 60% deaths of migrants’ workers. Around 198 migrant workers died in road accidents during lockdown according to reports of Save Life Foundations. The workers lost their lives in road accidents, due to hunger and dehydration and they even died in Shramik trains.  After 80 days, these workers can still be seen walking on the highways.  

THE ROLE OF JUDICIARY AND GOVERNMENT

On May 26, 2020, a three-bench judge led by Justice Ashok Bhushan decide to take Suo moto action on the miseries of stranded migrant workers and ordered the central and state government to immediately provide with transportation, food and shelter free of cost to migrant workers. The CourtCourt previously failed to protect the rights of migrant workers in March and made some bizarre statements by saying “How can stop migrants from walking”.[3] The Solicitor General also made a funny statement in Supreme Court in March by saying “there is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns/villages.”[4] Time and again, the Supreme Court has abdicated its duty to protect the fundamental rights of the migrant workers. The three-bench judge comprising of Justice Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul and MR Shah said that 15 days are enough for the central and state government to bring all the stranded migrant workers to their native homes.  

The central government started Shramik Special Trains from May 1 to carry migrant workers. The special trains only added to the plight of these workers. The central and state governments again failed miserably. Indian Railways reported that 256 trains were cancelled by various state governments. The lack of coordination between the state government and central government led to such cancellation of trains. There are reports of people dying on shramik trains and trains not reaching the destination. According to the data from Railway Protection Force, almost 80 persons have died on Shramik Special trains. According to a few reports, the special trains initially were not providing any food or water. The trains were running without any pantry services. The railways and government faced severe criticisms. Only after such criticism, they started pantry services.[5] The railways and government subtly blamed the extraordinary times and the health issues of the workers who died on the train. The Solicitor General said to the Supreme Court denying all the allegations related to the deaths of workers on special trains. He said that no death of migrant worker happened due to lack of food or water or medication. They died because of their poor health. The government did not publish any official data relating to the deaths of migrant workers during the lockdown. There is no official report on the reasons behind the death of migrant workers. 

CONCLUSION 

The Central Government, State Governments and Supreme Court all three of them added to the plight of migrant workers. Instead of helping these people, they turned their eye and blamed these poor people for their miseries. The lack of coordination and the inventiveness of both governments lead to the cancellation of trains and trains losing their route. The central government ill-planned lockdown forced these workers to walk on the road to reach their native places. Some walked barefoot, some walked with small children, and some pregnant ladies walked carrying all their belongings. The government refused to acknowledge their problems and left them on their own. The CourtCourt did not take action on time and made some bizarre statements acting like they can’t help in such a crisis. While the government and CourtCourt failed, the media and citizens reached out to these people. There are several interviews and reports on how citizens helped these people by providing food and shelter. Few celebrities also came forward to help these workers. The Covid-19 did not only lead to economic and health crisis but also a humanitarian crisis. It exposed our broken system. It made us think for the most neglected group of our society and forced us to imagine how our big cities will survive without them?  


Manasvi Bhatt is a fourth year student from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun .


[1]Rukmini S, Why India’s’ Migrant’ Walked Backed Home(May 28, 2020, 5:21 AM)  ,https://www.livemint.com/news/india-why-migrants-walked-back-home-11590564390171.html

[2]Rohini Chatterjee, Migrant Workers Have Died Almost Every Day Since May 8 Aurangabad Tragedy(May 5, 2020, 1:21 PM), https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/migrant-workers-killed-lockdown_in_5ebcfdfbc5b63dbb671141d8

[3]Jagdeep S. Chhokar, Migrant Worker Crisis: The Supreme Court Has Abdicated All Responsibility(May 19, 2020), https://thewire.in/law/supreme-court-migrant-workers-crisis-abdicate-responsibility.

[4]Ibid.

[5]The Wire Staff, Almost 80 Persons Have Died on Board Shramik Special Trains( May 30, 2020), https://thewire.in/government/almost-80-persons-have-died-on-board-shramik-special-trains.

IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.

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