In May 2020, millions of poor workers and their families walked back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and other states, leaving behind the metropolises. Images of their plight made headlines across the world, on our TV screens and social media, and splashed across newspaper front pages. But they are no longer in the news. Although, back in their villages, they and other rural workers face massive unemployment, food insecurity and the spread of COVID-19.
VMFT is organizing a program to raise awareness about the situation of migrant workers in India, share experiences across key states and identify potential solutions to protect their rights and livelihoods.We will bring together government officials, researchers, policy makers, NGOs supporting the workers, activists, and media professionals.
Two months after the ‘long march’ of millions of migrant workers, the Indian public still does not fully know how many of our fellow citizens have returned to their villages. Nor do we know from which cities they went, or to which states or localities they travelled. From Kerala, government reports indicate that over 300,000 workers returned on the ‘Shramik’ trains, primarily to West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. We also know little about the conditions in which they are living. With rural unemployment and COVID-19 cases mounting, the misery in India’s heartland states is deepening. If malnutrition increases amongst the young and children are unable to attend school, COVID-19 will affect not just the current working generation, but also future generations. We need to better understand and publicize the conditions faced by this large and vulnerable section of Indian citizens in order to protect their livelihoods, health, well-being and development prospects through public policy and programs, and to avert future disasters.
In 2017, the World Economic Forum (WEF), as part of its India Economic Summit, declared that “We must not forget” the 139 million “internal migrants” in India, a number based on the 2011 Census. As is clear now, these workers were never remembered. Even their numbers are not accurately known: inter-state migrants are estimated to be about 60 million. Now, there is a danger, that after the brief spell in the media spotlight in May, they will be forgotten again unless we make a concerted effort to understand and share their stories. In order to develop better policies and programs, we need both up to date quantitative data and qualitative information.
On paper, migrant workers have several legal protections. The Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 has strong provisions, such as the requirement that all establishments using inter-state migrants should be registered; and that contractors who recruit them should be licensed supply information to state government authorities. Additionally, inter-state migrants should have parity in wages with in-state workers, various allowances and free medical facilities, among other benefits. COVID-19 showed that these provisions were hardly implemented in most of the ‘receiving’ states; most state governments could not even estimate the numbers of migrants accurately, let alone provide services to them. In the absence of state government programs, many NGOs have been active in registering and providing services to these migrants, providing another source of valuable experience.
In contrast with other states, Kerala was able to identify the migrant workers individually, provide them shelter, food and medical facilities and ensure safe transport back to their home states for those who wished to return. These measures were only possible because of earlier action by the Kerala government to register the workers. There was also a broad political and social consensus that the inter-state workers required protection and safety, like other citizens of the state. All political parties agreed on the measures. Other states can benefit from Kerala’s experience, while Kerala can further develop its policies and programs by learning from the best experiences internationally on supporting migrants and adapting these experiences to the local context.
Meanwhile, across India, the construction, manufacturing and services sectors in the big and small cities, and large scale commercial agricultural operations, are feeling the impacts of labor shortages.. Hence, there is a concerted move to bring back migrant labor. Faced with rural poverty, many workers who had left are likely to be eager to return to urban centres, despite the on-going risks of COVID-19 and the lack of adequate legal and social protection. There is a danger that instead of strengthening legal protections for these workers, there will be further pressure to weaken existing legal provisions in order to promote economic recovery.
COVID-19 shows that a short-sighted approach to accelerate economic growth by ‘saving costs’ for employers – through not providing for the protection of workers and the most vulnerable – ultimately inflicts enormous costs on society as a whole. The sufferings experienced by our migrant workers during, and since, their long march in the summer of 2020 should not be in vain. We must use this moment to hear and share their stories, to strengthen the laws and programs designed to protect our workers, and to ensure their implementation.