The Indian Railways started “Shramik Special” trains to take back to their home States migrant workers, tourists, pilgrims, students and others who were stranded due to nationwide lockdown for more than a month. The decision taken on the eve of third extension of lockdown from 4 to 17 May is a great relief particularly to migrant workers who have no work and depend on government support for food and shelter. Census of 2011 enumerated 4 crore population as migrant labourers.
A status report filed by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Supreme Court showed that a total of 22,567 shelters by State governments and 3,909 by NGOs were working in the country. The Government of Kerala, foremost in this regard, is running over 65 % of active shelters and relief camps numbering 15,541 for stranded migrant workers. Apart from these, employers and industries are providing food and shelter to about 15 lakh such workers in the country. Food is being provided to over 54 lakh people by Union and State governments and to about 30 lakh by NGOs.
Five Shramik Special trains were scheduled to run in the first batch from Nasik in Maharashtra to Lucknow in UP, and to Bhopal in MP, from Aluva in Kerala to Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, from Jaipur in Rajasthan to Patna in Bihar, and from Kota in Rajasthan to Hatia in Jharkhand. One such special train left Lingampally in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand on 1 April even before guidelines were released by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Several such trains are expected to follow. The migrants will be quarantined for 21 days.
The trains will carry only passengers registered with the concerned State Governments and no other passengers. The arrangement is partly in response to massive protests of migrants particularly in Delhi and Maharashtra and their desperate move in many States to somehow reach their native places totally violating all lockdown norms. In any case, Union Government seems to be proceeding methodically in dealing with social problems arising from the outbreak of epidemic. There is no quick solution when the country is fighting multiple problems.
Shramik Special is no easy run. While many States are demanding special trains to transport migrant workers, Bihar Government is reported to have denied permission for arrival of the trains. Protests have erupted in Chennai by “guest” workers, not provided transport in the first batch to return to their home States.
Tamil Nadu Government has identified 4.82 lakh guest workers of whom 3.2 lakh are in 4,228 accommodation centres and government shelters. But, there is no State-wise statistics or any information on the number wanting to go back or stay where they are. Situation is similar in all States while workers, restless and clueless about their future, become angry and unruly. In Kerala, it is claimed that there are 3.6 lakh guest workers from Assam, Bihar, Odisha, UP, and West Bengal staying in 20,826 camps spread across the State – all of them wanting to go back.
Demands from State governments are of two types. Some want to send guest workers from other States back to their homes; some like Chhattisgarh want Central government to make arrangement to bring back their workers stranded in other States.
Running special trains does not end the problem arising from migrant workers. The evacuation exercise has to be carried on amidst chaotic conditions marked by protests of frustrated workers, and circulation of fake news and rumours creating panic. Clashes between migrants and the police are common as the situation itself is so uncommon. Providing food and shelter and other essential amenities to thousands of workers is a stupendous job unrelated to fighting the pandemic, and the task involves the risk of escalation of the disease.
The tragedy in the situation is that the prime concern of many political and other groups, which contribute practically nothing for controlling the epidemic, is to magnify the migrant problem. The situation continues to be explosive and has become the chief culprit in breakdown of lockdown rules and complete disregard for social distancing. It brought the migrants to the central point in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. A medical mission is obstructed by a non-medical factor and has proved the immense importance of the social context and the readiness of political interests to make best use of social problems. Migrant labour is common in many countries, but internally it does not create a separate problem as in India.
PILs seeking Supreme Court direction to the Union government and concerned State governments to pay basic minimum wages to migrant workers and to self-employed workers like rikshaw pullers during the lockdown period have been rejected. The court declined to interfere with financial allocations of the governments.
The issue of migrant labour has become an extremely crucial issue for political parties to position themselves in people’s mind. The Congress Working Committee adopted a Resolution on 25 April (Thursday) drew the attention of the Central government to the necessity of framing a policy under which migrant workers could return to their homes if they wished and should be provided with health, safety conditions, food and adequate money till then, be allowed to return to their work after lockdown, and given compensation for loss incurred during the crisis period.
The Indian Constitution gives all citizens freedom to move to any State and has no system of State citizenship. It goes without saying that migrant workers may return to their work if their former employers agree. The arrangement is between the employers and workers and no government is bound to take care of their travel to the workplace after lockdown. Present situation is a national health emergency requiring humanitarian relief and rescue work and once the pandemic subsides, there is no crisis.
It is time to open our eyes to the status of migrant labour – most of them living under the mercy of contractors and placement agencies. Both agriculture and industry depend heavily on migrant labour for efficiency and economy. Many of these workers, who are employed as daily wage workers, are far away from their homes — an unpleasant working condition that hitherto has not bothered anybody.
Hence, in the place of purely humanitarian considerations, a rights approach must be framed based on due recognition of the importance of the growing sector of migrant labour in our economy and granting certain rights and security to them.
The plight of migrant labourer, considered as a social issue, raises questions over the relative responsibility of State and Central governments or of the “host” or “guest” State or that of the employers and workers. But, this is not the time to assume positions on rights and responsibilities and play irresponsible politics. Questions of responsibility will remain to be tackled after the present crisis.
Migrant labour, an important component of labour market in India, has given rise to a huge humanitarian problem. The economic consequences of the exodus of these workers will have to be faced after the epidemic crisis. How many of them will be willing to return to their work is a big question. Shramik Specials cannot become permanent.