Migrant workers: the rise of invisible India – analysis
We are living in difficult times caused by coronavirus diseases (Covid-19). When India imposed its blockade, they all fully supported the movement in the belief that we must be one in the fight against the virus.
Now that India is opening up, it is clear that the strategy to combat the virus does not consider all Indians as one. A country of more than 1.3 billion people was locked up, four hours in advance, ignoring the needs of the poorest and most migrant workers. The government’s response came with an inherent class bias. If you were an Indian abroad, the national airline was commissioned to take you back, even from countries like China, where the virus had already spread. I support this as an action that any responsible country must take for its stranded citizens abroad. However, migrant workers, abandoned from their homes and families, found themselves without work without money or food security.
I am from Padrauna in the Kushinagar district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Thousands of men leave this district each year to look for work in the cities, often leaving their families behind. Within days of closing, Congressional workers reported that many migrants from my district were stranded in different states. I established a helpline with my team. As soon as we released the numbers, calls flooded us. They all had a common demand: basic rations to survive. All his money had been used up with the factories shutting down overnight.
One of the saddest calls was from a group of young people trapped in the UP center. Having no wages, they collected and sold three mobile phones to buy food. Selling a mobile phone, the only connection with their families, has become an act of utmost desperation to survive in these times.
The Congressional Working Committee and the president, as well as Rahul Gandhi, warned the government that this was turning into a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions. This was dismissed by the opposition by the opposition.
The irony is that we have treated migrant workers as strangers, although they have been crucial to nation building. Their needs were invisible to those who made big announcements, until they walked the same streets and highways they had built, on the way back to their homes.
During election campaigns, I have often gone to areas where there is a UP people domain. Everyone has told me the same thing: they are considered outsiders who are good enough to build subways and skyscrapers, but they do not consider themselves worthy of even habitable accommodation. They are outside the safety net of most state government schemes because they do not have domicile documents.
There are three constructive action points that we must urgently consider. First, we need a database of people who work and live outside of their states. For too long, the fact that they are working in the informal sector as contract work has made them almost non-existent. This database would make it easy to accurately assess how much they need food, shelter or transportation during a crisis like this.
Second, the government has accepted the proposal put forward by a nation’s previous government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a ration card. This must be taken one step further. Workers with an ID from another state must be allowed access to all government schemes and facilities of the central government or the state where they currently live. Also, workers in other states must be able to vote where they live. This will give them political courage and access to the elected local representative. Both Aadhaar and Mahatma Gandhi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee System are government schemes of the UPA. Now they must be strengthened.
Three, instituting labor reforms does not mean facilitating the exploitation of workers. Now we must formulate a universal social security scheme for workers who use an authentic database. In response to a recent public interest litigation in Gujarat, the state said that only 7,512 of the approximately 2.25 million migrant workers were registered. The government does not have precise estimates of the number of migrant workers or their locations, which explains the inadequate response to their current difficult situation.
The only silver lining in a dark cloud is that urban Indians seem to have finally woken up to the circumstances in which many of their fellow citizens live. They have begun to realize how much these voiceless and faceless people contribute to their lives.
The most humiliating conversation I have had in the past two months was with the father of a 19 year old boy, Arjun Chauhan, who came from my district. He was killed in a traffic accident in Auraiya, UP, on his way home in the back of a crowded truck. His father told me that his son had left his town for the first time in his young life, just a few months ago, to earn a decent living for himself and his family. Will his death be seen as a consequence of the pandemic, state apathy, or just another statistic to be forgotten? Most importantly, will it be a wake-up call for Indian policy makers?
RPN Singh is a former Union Minister and leader of Congress
The opinions expressed are personal.