Challenges to Inter-State Migrant Workers: Struggle During Pandemic!!

India, a country with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants is now among the worst affected country when compared to China, U.S., Spain, Italy, Iran, Britain, and other worst-affected countries of Covid-19 but the pandemic has exposed India’s deep economic divide, and the government’s apathy towards the workers who acts as a fuel to power the country’s growth. The imposition of countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection has inadvertently exposed the extreme vulnerability of the inter-state migrant workers who are majorly associated with the construction sector of the country with 55 million daily wage-workers. The Covid-19 outbreak has forced us to maintain social-distancing as a measure to prevent the spread of infection. The mass departure of laborers from one state to another created a cluttering situation for the states which forced states to build quarantine centers near the state borders to prevent the community spread of the pandemic. This has opened up the serious threat of rural contagion, which resulted in medical exigencies, lockdown extension, and diversion of more funds to fight Covid-19 rather than aiding economic activities.  

Impact of Lockdown on the Inter-State Migrant Workers
Situation of Unemployment

According to 2011 Indian census, there are around 60 million migrant workers in Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi. Some 33% of these migrants hail from Uttar Pradesh, 15% from Bihar and 6% from Rajasthan, followed by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi each accounting for 5%.[1] The imposition of countrywide lockdown under Disaster Management Act 2005 had shut down all commercial and private establishments except the essential services which are crucial for survival. States sealed their borders by halting transport services –air, road and train. This resulted in ending the livelihood of millions of workers in the unorganized sectors on the standstill, keeping them stranded without any source of income.

Endangered Lives to Starvation and Poor Health

The majority of the laborers are dependent upon their daily income, due to shut down and pending of businesses left laborers without any means of sustenance and shelter in large cities forcing them to march along interstate highways to their native places. The migrants who were traveling on the roads created the burden on health systems and also impacted their health. There were multifold issues associated with their traveling such as lack of food, lack of proper water and sanitation, along with the stress of reaching home.

Inhuman Treatment of Migrants

Migrant laborers returning to their homes were subject to cruel treatment. The local administration in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh forced the migrant laborers to take an open bath in groups with disinfectant before they were allowed entry into the district. The disinfectant carries the solution of Sodium Hypochlorite which is ordinarily used to sanitize non-living things like metal surfaces, cardboard, and closed walls. The use of the chemical is strictly prohibited on humans but despite knowing it the chemical is sprayed on laborers as if they aren’t humans leading to irritation in ears and eyes.[2]  

Inter-state migration may create a labor shortage

Labor deficit in the states such as Punjab, Delhi, Maharashtra and Gujarat may feel the more impact of inter-state migration. Factors such as harrowing experiences during reverse migration, basic sustenance support from the government increased rural demand during monsoon and anticipated slow normalization of labor demand on the withdrawal of a lockdown may delay the return of laborers back to their work which may create the labor shortage in the market.  

RESPONSIBILITY OF THE STATE 

India’s labor laws have been often criticized as being too complex, archaic and inflexible. Among them the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 provide certain rights to interstate workers such as displacement allowance,[3] home journey allowance,[4]  suitable residential accommodation and medical facilities free of charge  but remains one of the poorly implemented law in India which seems to exist only on paper as the provisions have gone unimplemented for nearly four decades as majority of workers and establishments employing them are outside the purview of the Act,[5] resulting in lack of protection and safety of the most vulnerable migrants in India. The Industrial Dispute Act, 1947 lays down the rule for retrenchment and allows companies employing less than 100 employees to retrench freely. If companies lay off, they have to provide 50% of the wage but this is not the case where there are less than 50 employees. Moreover, establishments having at least 20 workers are entitled to provident the fund, but the glaring fact is 98.6% of all establishments employing less than 10 employees, according to the Economic Census of 2013; 1410 making them ineligible for the scheme. 

Article 21 guarantees the right to live with human dignity which must include adequate nutrition, clothing, and shelter over the head in order to constitute the basic necessities of life.[6] Article 39(a) imposes responsibility on the state to secure adequate means of livelihood to every citizen. Article 47 imposes the duty upon the state to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. Moreover, the doctrine of parens patriae obliges the state to act as a protector of its citizens particularly when citizens are not in a position to protect themselves.

Hence, it is the duty of each States/Union Territories to prevent deaths due to starvation or malnutrition.[7] The lockdown has raised concerns for the survival of daily wage earners as they are struggling to manage even a onetime meal in a day. They have a fear of death from starvation than contagious virus of corona. We have the figures of death caused due to corona but not of death caused by starvation. The reverse migration of workers despite the possibility of police brutality, hunger and thrust poses a serious question before the Governments and the people of the country at large i.e., in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, are we going to let migrant workers still stuck in cities, in transit and back in their homes face extreme hunger, thirst, and poverty? The reverse exodus of migrant workers amid the Covid-19 lockdown made them realize how unequal in society they are by either civil society or the state. They are the person who fuels the economic engine of the country and it is very shameful that the symptomatic of exclusion presents the deplorable state of the inter-state migrant workers.    

REFERENCES

[1]https://www.indiaspend.com/migrants-returning-home-to-ill-equipped-healthcare-systems/

[2]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/coronavirus-in-bareilly-migrantsforced-to-take-bath-in-the-open-with-sanitiser/

[3]Section 14 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.

[4]Section 15 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.

[5]https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/a-law-that-remains-mostly-on-paper/

[6]Francis Coralie Mallin v. Union Territory of India

[7]People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India & Ors., W.P. (Civil) No. 6723 of 2001.

 

Author

  • PSX 20210723 202508 1

    Penultimate Year Student at Institute of Law, Nirma University. A hardworking legal entrepreneur who is interested in Corporate and Dispute Resolution Laws.

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