The United Nations has raised the red flag of growing modern slavery, suppression of information and hitting sustainable development goals (SDG). Its Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Tomoya Obokata, warns “the severe socio-economic effect of the Covid-19 is likely to increase the scourge of modern-day slavery, already impacting over 40 million people before the pandemic.” Post-pandemic, the International Monetary Fund says that 400 million are slipping globally into severe poverty.
Back home, the Karnataka government’s initial move to keep the 3 lakh-odd labourers in lockdown, under pressure from the builders lobby and cancel all relief trains from Bengaluru for them, strangely enough is a reflection of the global problem. It symbolizes as if they are bonded labourers. Likewise, the mindset in Maharashtra against the Bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has been contemptuous though now in the face of the crisis, along with Gujarat it is too applying the brakes on their movement.
Not behind are Chief Ministers of Haryana and Punjab. They have dialed UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath urging him to hold back the labourers in their States. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has shown clear disinterest in their return. Wanting to “restart the economy” and keep the workers back, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa announced a Rs 1610-crore economic package for floriculturists, barbers, washermen, weavers, auto drivers and construction workers offering a one-time payment of Rs 2000 to 25000. However, given the backlash, he ended up allowing the trains as the poor started moving and he couldn’t withstand the pressure.
Adityanath instead has stumped everyone by issuing an ordinance, shelving all labour laws for three years to help the industrialists. It means no worker can complain even against non-payment of dues. He is apparently following in the footsteps of Gujarat, which had done it earlier. The stress on MGNREGA is also increasing. Its allocation was reduced to Rs 61,500 crore this year from Rs 71,000 crore in 2019.
The poor are rejecting the packages of the Chief Ministers disdainfully and want to move back whether trains are run or not. Have they lost trust in the system? Sadly, the circumstances are typically against the poor labourers. The restlessness is spreading in Nagpur, Surat, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ferozabad and Garh Mukteshwar (UP), Barmer (Rajasthan), Katni (Madhya Pradesh) and other places. They are resolutely marching towards their homes in Jharkhand, Bihar, eastern UP, Odisha and West Bengal defying the lockdown and at times even clashing with the police.
On May 7, Supreme Court judge, Justice Deepak Gupta, in his farewell speech lamented that the laws and legal system are geared in favour of the rich and powerful and it was the poorest of the poor who suffered the most during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. The underprivileged need the apex court’s attention and judges could no longer afford to live in ivory towers, he added.
The reverse march of crores to Indian villages since March 25 testifies the abysmal conditions and insecurities they are having. India’s real estate, MSMEs, large industries or the smallest courier firms are being run by these distressed people, who moved to urban centres for better conditions. According to the annual report of MSME ministry, 11 crore (110 million) are employed in 6.3 crore MSMEs of an estimated 18 crore informal worker population. They did not have a day’s earning amid the lockdown and are among the marchers or now travelers by the scarce “Shramik expresss” trains to villages.
Additionally, five crore retailers are in distress as their losses accumulate to Rs 7.5 lakh crore, according to Praveen Khandelwal, General Secretary of retailers body, Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT). A goldsmith or a textile or garment seller selling vegetables is now not an unusual sight in many localities.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says there is need for freedom of the press to ensure that such distresses are known and not suppressed. In his World Press Freedom Day message, he says “It is critical to countering COVID-19 pandemic misinformation”. As the lockdown has prompted a spike in unemployment throughout most of the world, “many previously vulnerable workers have been pushed into precarious situations lacking any protection”. The factors have increased vulnerability to exploitation, which may amount to enslavement, Obokata says.
A glaring example of the situation emanates from West Bengal. About 15 labourers from seaside resort Digha left their workplace walking on the railway track to avoid the local police enforcing lockdown. They travelled 70 km to Birbhum, where they were picked up by the government rail police (GRP) to be dropped back from where they started! Similar stories have come from MP, where the labourers reportedly awaited to be ferried back to its borders. As on Thursday night 500 workers were stopped at the Gujarat-MP border.
It is heartrending to find babies also in the crowd as the State apparatus is not allowing the labourers to use any vehicle. Some have even pedaled down on bicycles from Sangli in Maharashtra to Odisha. And labourers who were not accommodated in trains from Hyderabad started walking back to Bihar, Jharkhand and UP and told a TV reporter in disgust that they would not return even if they were offered a job or food. Simply they want to go back to the emotional security of their home and family.
Obokata notes, the pandemic has affected billions of such informal workers. “And between financial shocks and inadequate government, children face an even higher risk of exposure to the worst forms of child labour”. Who doesn’t know how the builders in the National Capital Region have been thriving on the toils of children and exploitation of women?
India must treat the poor with care and concern. They are self respecting people and are proud of whatever they do. Denying them their rights or minimum starvation wages may cause deep fissures. Worse, it can lead to a social crisis. The problem needs to be solved with empathy. It is incomprehensible why a health crisis is being dealt like a law and order problem.
Inaction by governments, warns Obokata would lead to sharp rise in the number of people being pushed into slavery because of the corona crisis and it is bound to hit sustainable development goals (SDG).
The Narendra Modi government is trying to initiate steps to help the people, but these are not good enough. Besides, the prolonged lockdown is thawing every activity. The system is crumbling. The nation wants a functional state. Let us end the lockdown and resume normal operations. The nation can chart out the best path as free functioning begins.