You will find them everywhere in our cities, hanging from the scaffoldings of buildings, carting heavy loads in factories, guarding our homes, fixing our plumbing, doing our domestic chores or selling fruits and vegetables. Yet they remain invisible, a workforce peopled mostly by migrants from rural India, and contributing an estimated 10 per cent to India’s GDP.
It took a pandemic and a subsequent lockdown to thrust them into the national consciousness and shake our collective conscience. As national television played out images of desperate migrants on a loop, an exhausted child asleep on his mother’s suitcase as she drags it along, a young man cradling his friend who died of exhaustion as they set out from Surat to their home in Uttar Pradesh, and a 15-year-old old girl cycling her disabled father 1,200 km back home unfolded, India came face to face with a tragedy of an unimaginable scale. It was enough for the Supreme Court to ask on May 26 that the central and state governments submit a report in two days on their actions to help migrant workers. On May 28, the Union government said it has sent 9.1 million migrant workers home between May 1 and May 27, 5 million by train and 4.1 million by road. The apex court has now issued detailed guidelines for the Centre and states to follow to transport migrant labourers.
Narendra Modi’s critics blame the prime minister for announcing a national lockdown on March 24 at four hours’ notice, leaving daily wage-earning migrants no time to prepare for days without work. The focus at the time, say government officials in the know, was saving lives more than livelihoods. Health experts, too, had sternly advised the government that any movement of migrants back to their home states could see COVID-19 entering rural India, where the health infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle it. Yet, some government officials admit they lacked clear data on migrant numbers and did not think the initial three-week lockdown would result in an exodus of a scale that India has not witnessed since the tragedies of Partition, a gross miscalculation.
But many experts do not buy the argument that the government did not have migrant numbers to aid their trauma-free return. According to Professor Amitabh Kundu, distinguished fellow at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think-tank in New Delhi, India currently has 65 million interstate migrants, of whom 33 per cent are workers. Add to them the street vendors the data does not capture, and you have another 12 to 18 million people.
According to the Economic Survey of India, 2017, nine million people move between states every year. In fact, their vulnerability was discussed threadbare in the Survey as well as in the report of the working group on migration by the Union ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation the same year. Little heed was paid to their recommendations.
As the central government kept extending the lockdown, migrant workers, mainly daily wagers, became desperate to return home. With jobs and income drying up and no social security net to help them tide over the crisis, they no longer had money to buy food or pay rent. Living in cities became untenable. As Kundu points out, “Forty-five per cent of them share one room among five. Nearly 40 per cent use community water. The lockdown confined them to their congested living spaces, as moving out meant facing police atrocities.” In their villages, they had family, no rent to pay and food to eat. Little wonder they set out for home, with 80 per cent of them heading back to Bihar and UP.
Many of these workers are ‘circular migrants’, who come to the cities seeking work in the non-agricultural season, and would have returned to their native places after the monsoon. “They go back in June-July. Railway data shows that around 4 million people move around that time. The lockdown advanced their return by a month or two. It’s surprising that the government did not anticipate this movement,” says Kundu. Priya Deshingkar, professor of migration and development at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, says their invisibility is the reason why the urban poor and migrant workers in the informal sector fall below the radar of central and state government officials. “Several studies show that 80 per cent of the circular migrants lack identity and domicile documents. They also remain invisible because they are recruited by labour market intermediaries such as contractors and brokers,” she says.
By the time the prime minister extended the lockdown on April 14, the situation had turned even more complex. More than the Centre, states like Bihar were unwilling to take back people fearing an exponential rise in Covid cases. Nor did they have adequate testing and quarantine facilities to give them the confidence to handle the inflow. Villages, too, were reluctant to accommodate the returnees, fearing infection. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy, on whom both the Centre and states rely to execute policy, became even more obdurate after Delhi chief secretary Renu Sharma was suspended for trying to facilitate the movement of migrants back to UP. “The ad hoc and haphazard way policies are designed and implemented was the real problem,” says Varun Aggarwal, founder of India Migration Now (IMN), an advocacy group in Mumbai.
“We thought the lockdown would end after the first three weeks,” says a top Madhya Pradesh government official. “When the second phase came, we thought it would be the last. The extension of lockdowns, with the authorities each time not clarifying whether it was the last one or there were more to follow, made people impatient.” When the first wave of migrants returned, he reveals, the state government was completely unprepared, yet managed to handle them and contain Covid’s spread. “But when the second wave began,” he says, “with vehicles clogging the borders and those travelling on foot or on trains arriving simultaneously, the resources to manage them were stretched.”
The Centre, meanwhile, began focusing its energies on providing food and relief to migrants through cash transfers. Two days into the lockdown, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore stimulus package under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, which included free foodgrains to ration card-holders for three months and Rs 500 cash transfer to women Jan Dhan account-holders for three months. States were directed to use their Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund to provide relief to construction workers. Though not aimed directly at migrant workers, the provisions, government sources claimed, covered many of them. States such as Assam and Odisha made direct cash payments to the distressed, even if the coverage and quantum remained debatable. As the distress among migrants increased, the Centre empowered the states to use their allocation under the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) to provide food and shelter to migrant workers. By April 3, Rs 11,092 crore of NDRF had been released to states.
Interminable wait: Migrants gather at Wadala, Mumbai, to board buses that can take them to the railway station where they can catch a train to UP. Photo: Mandar Deodhar
However, with most wage labourers tending to leave their ration cards behind with their families and the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme yet to be implemented, many found themselves unable to access welfare schemes. Others just wanted to go home. “Without any income support, the idea of providing food for three months was based on a faulty assumption,” says Chinmay Tumbe, migration expert and professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. “Most left because their landlords evicted them, leaving them with no place to stay.” The uncertainty over the length of the lockdown further exacerbated insecurities. Lack of awareness proved another impediment. A survey by Jan Sahas, a non-profit organisation, found that 62 per cent of the workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 per cent did not know how to access them.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Even as the movement of migrants continued, it took the central government 53 days after the lockdown to set up a National Migrant Information System, an online dashboard for states to monitor their movement. Of the 11 empowered groups set up on March 29, not one dealt with the plight of the migrants. It took the fifth instalment of the central government’s Rs 20 lakh crore package in May to give migrant workers some relief, that too in the form of easier credit access, not direct cash transfer.
The government’s May stimulus package did extend the free ration scheme to another 80 million Indians excluded under the public distribution system, which covers 810 million people. However, there implementation was left to the state governments. Registration and paperwork means a large number of migrants, primarily short-term labourers, will remain stranded as most of them lack documents such as Aadhaar cards.
Meanwhile, from May 1 onward, the Union home ministry allowed interstate movement of migrants on trains. Top railways officials say they had estimated they would have to transport around 3 million migrants, but midway they realised the numbers would be much higher. Till May 26, the railways had moved more than 4 million people, yet the crowds kept swelling. With most migrants headed to UP, all major junctions started getting clogged, resulting in delays and diversions. A blame game also began between the Centre and states, with Union railways minister Piyush Goyal charging many states with not sending in requests for trains to transport migrants and the chief ministers of these states, in turn, accusing him of ignoring their requests.
Meanwhile, the delays in moving people, just when lockdown restrictions are being eased, are beginning to hurt the economy. Cities are staring at labour scarcity. In Punjab, the exodus of migrants is worrying as the sowing season for Kharif has already begun, while work on labour-intensive paddy will begin by June 10. In neighbouring Haryana, the industrial belts in Gurugram, Faridabad, Panipat and Karnal are being forced to run below capacity as a major chunk of labour has gone home.
Hence the growing clamour for bringing back the migrants even before they have reached home. C.K Saji Narayanan, president of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, says he has asked the central and state governments to make plans for the rehabilitation of migrant workers. “The labourers, who went back initially, now want to come back and join work. Some provisions should be made to bring them back,” says Rahul Ahuja, chairman of the Punjab CII (Confederation of Indian Industry).
Many experts believe the migrants will return, though they may delay it by a couple of months. “The migrants are angry and frustrated now,” says Tumbe. “But once the psychological healing happens, they will start coming back, purely out of economic compulsion.” Others believe the inability of the rural infrastructure to sustain the additional burden will force them to return. “After the lockdown, the distress in the rural economy will be compounded, which in turn could trigger more migration to urban areas,” says Benoy Peter, executive director at the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, a non-profit based in Kerala.
In fact, the loss of work for migrants will have a cascading effect on the rural economy. Dependants back home rely on the remittances the migrants send. Tumbe estimated the size of domestic remittances to be about Rs 50,000 crore in 2007-08. Sixty per cent of these were interstate transfers and nearly 80 per cent of domestic remittances went to rural households. With this source of income drying up, economic growth in rural India will get depressed even further.
That apart, the rural economy, claims Kundu, does not have the capacity to absorb even a fourth of the returning migrants. Currently, most states are relying on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to support the migrants. The Union government has allocated an additional Rs 40,000 crore to the existing Rs 61,500 crore budget for the scheme for 2020-21. All states have started issuing job cards to those returning workers who don’t have one. Data on MGNREGA employment suggests that for the moment, workers are opting for employment under the scheme, even though the wages are much lower than what they would have earned in cities. This, too, will push them back to cities, argue experts.
The forgotten majority
The Covid crisis has exposed the systemic indifference of governments, central and state, toward migrants. Come elections, emotional political narratives will be built around them, but migrants have rarely been the driving force of any government policy. “Migrants have almost no political voice as they are not allowed to vote at destination and typically miss out on elections back at home. They are not stakeholders in making decisions that affect them,” says IMN’s Aggarwal. “Our welfare system is designed predominantly for the poor rural and static households, whereas in the past 20 years, the proportion of urban poor, dominated by migrant workers, has exploded.” Way back in 2009, the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Bill was enacted to give workers social security and job protection, and draw up a database of unorganised workers. Tellingly, this has yet to be done.
To safeguard the interests of migrant workers, the Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, provides for payment of minimum wages, journey allowance, displacement allowance, residential accommodation, medical facilities, and protective clothing. The current crisis has exposed how poorly these provisions are enforced, a task entrusted to the Central Industrial Relations Machinery. Between 2016 and 2019, 23,908 inspections by authorities found 267,040 irregularities, but there were only 5,839, or 2.1 per cent, convictions.
Harsh norms and giving discretionary powers to bureaucracy are responsible for poor compliance with the law, say experts. These laws must be rationalised to incentivise employers and contractors. Under the proposed social security code of the newly simplified central labour laws, the Union government now plans to register the migrant workers so that they can access social security and health benefits under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation. In the wake of the pandemic, several states have suspended labour laws, in toto or partially, to provide an industry-friendly environment. Experts say that such temporary measures are anti-labour and governments instead have to focus on comprehensive labour reform.
Another provision meant to help construction workers, 40 per cent of whom are migrants, is the Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund. It provides for social security benefits, including medical assistance, accident cover, pension, maternity benefits, educational assistance for children. However, this fund, collected and controlled by the states, has been sparingly used. For instance, of the Rs 49,688 crore collected by the states till March 31, 2019, only Rs 19,380 crore, or 39 per cent, has been spent so far. Besides, the Act leaves out some 200 million of the 550 million construction workers since to avail of the benefits you must be registered with the Building and Construction Workers Welfare Board, and most contractors don’t allow that.
Migrant rights, too, vary across states. The Interstate Migrant Policy Index 2019, prepared by IMN, ranked states on the basis of equitable policies for residents and migrants on parameters such as labour policy, housing, social security, health, sanitation and political participation. Of the seven states studied, Kerala ranked on top, scoring 62 out of 100 while Delhi, at 33, ranked the lowest. Even Kerala needed considerable improvement, the study found, particularly in political inclusion and non-discriminatory access to housing.
In 2015, taking note of the issue of migrants, the Modi government set up a first-ever task force on migration, an 18-member Working Group on Migration under the Union ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation. In a report submitted in January 2017, the panel said the migrant population contributed substantially to economic growth and that it was necessary to secure their constitutional rights. Rather than specific legislation to protect the rights of migrant workers, the report recommended building an architecture to provide portability to all social welfare schemes so that a migrant registered under a scheme in his or her home state could access those benefits in the state where he or she was working. Till the pandemic struck, most of these recommendations had not been implemented. Only now has the central government announced it will implement the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme by March next year.
Amit Basole, director of the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University, believes the Covid crisis provides an opportunity to fast-track efforts to end regional disparities in economic development. “States such as UP, Bihar and Jharkhand can reimagine their economic landscapes and emerge as hubs of vibrant economic activity so that people from there don’t have to take long journeys and work in pathetic conditions,” he says. The UP government has already announced a Workers’ Employment Welfare Commission, which will work out social security and insurance for workers.
The way forward, some experts suggest, is greater coordination between source and destination states to ensure benefits portability for migrants, on the lines of the 2012 memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to improve the living and working conditions of migrants from Odisha operating in Andhra’s brick kilns. The Bihar government is preparing a draft for signing MoUs with employer states. MP and Rajasthan have announced plans to create databases of outbound migrants. “Such moves are encouraging. I hope they consult migrants directly rather than think of solutions in a top-down way,” says Deshingkar.
The millions of migrants help drive the engine of the Indian economy, yet when an extraordinary situation warranted extraordinary measures, the government demonstrated little regard for the impact on their lives and livelihoods. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the plight of this invisible population. Both the central and state governments need to create a roadmap to make cities more welcoming for migrants by providing affordable transport and housing, extending social security cover and pushing employers to comply with labour laws. Their plight has been a national shame.
—with Rahul Noronha, Anilesh S. Mahajanand Rohit Parihar