November 10, 2020
Stranded workers during lockdown. Image: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons

Despite govt claims, most migrants were left to fend for themselves 

AROUND 81.6 percent of migrant workers did not receive rations during the lockdown and around 84 percent of the workers did not receive any wages while 12 percent received partial payment.

Only 348 of the surveyed received the promised Rs 500 in their Jan Dhan Yojana (JDY) accounts.

Around 48 percent had to take loans between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 and 31 percent took loans of more than Rs 5,000 during the lockdown.

These are the findings from the survey of 3,904 worker groups adding up to 36,343 workers, who contacted the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a relief and support group working through the lockdown period.

In the paper ‘Manufactured Maladies: Lives and Livelihoods of Migrant Workers During COVID-19 Lockdown in India’ published in The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, the network volunteers give account of the hardships faced by the workers.

The Indian government imposed a 68 day lockdown on March 24 throughout the country to prevent the spread of COVID19 infection. Its sudden announcement led to unprecedented starvation, exhaustion, loss of livelihood and accidental deaths to millions of migrant workers.

Several workers would break down on calls in helplessness. Some felt guilty of reaching out for help as they felt it impinged on their dignity to seek help

In the first half of the lockdown, migrant workers were coerced to be stranded with no food and money. In the second half, the workers’ woes were compounded with a series of chaotic travel orders and gross mismanagement of the repatriation process.

Among those surveyed, 57 percent were construction workers and about 20 percent were self-employed. Based on their income, 65.8  percent were regular wage informal workers and casual labourers.

Initially, the majority of distress calls were from short-term interstate migrants but later on distress calls from longer-term migrants also increased. 

Access to Rations and Cash

Despite the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana which was a part of the Rs 20 lakh crore worth Atmanirbhar Bharat package, a majority of migrant workers said they were left without adequate ration. 

Around 72.3  percent of them had less than two days of ration left when they reached out to the SWAN helpline. Two-third of the workers had not received cooked food till May 21. 

The proportion of people who started receiving rations increased only from the end of May, around 50 days into the lockdown. However even on July 2, around 81 percent of the workers had not received government rations. The situation was better in Karnataka compared to Maharashtra, Delhi and Haryana. 

A group of 13 daily wage labourers from Bihar were stranded in a containment zone in Delhi. Food had been inaccessible for them, and they had been surviving on water for days

Overall, around two-thirds had not received the promised cooked food till May 21. This was better in Delhi compared to the other three states. For those stranded in containment zones, access to rations or cooked food proved difficult due to police restrictions. Workers had to depend on generous neighbours or the NGO volunteers if they were allowed to enter the containment zones.

A lower share of migrant households received cash transfer released by the government compared to non-migrant households. And, a lower percentage of Muslim households received this cash transfer compared to Hindu households. 

Access to cash once transferred was also an issue as many accounts were frozen on account of failure to maintain minimum balance. So money transferred was automatically deducted as a penalty.

Arshad worked delivering pizzas in Gurugram. His employer not only dismissed him when he asked for payment but also asked Arshad not to contact him again. 

His tenement in Delhi was destroyed recently by the state government. A few days later, his temporary encampment got flooded and he lost a lot of belongings. In utter agony, he said ‘Everything is destroyed. I see no meaning in living anymore’.

The Journey Back Home

Even at the end of June, 67 percent migrant respondents could not manage to go home. Among them 55 percent wanted to return immediately. In April, however, after the second phase of the lockdown, only 33 percent wanted to leave immediately. Around 75 percent of them were without employment. 

Among those who chose to travel, 6 percent set out for home by foot, 11 percent took trucks, 44 percent took buses and 39 percent managed to get on a Shramik special which was announced by the government later on. If this is not unfortunate, around 100 people died on board Shramik special trains or within railway premises. 

Despite Supreme Court directive that migrant workers would not be charged for the Shramik special trains, more than 85 percent had to incur high costs for their journey home.

Hardships for Women and Children

Government canteens and relief centres were usually male-dominated spaces making it difficult for women, especially pregnant women, to access them.

Domestic violence had hit a 10 year high in the lockdown as women were forced to stay with their abusers while 79 percent of women workers were rendered unemployed compared to 75 percent men.

There were also calls from women whose husbands abandoned their families. Fatima was stranded in Mumbai with her 8-month-old child. She only had Rs 13 left with her. Her alcoholic husband had not been home for 3–4 days

Children of migrants were discriminated against as government schools were largely shut and those who went to private schools could neither afford mobile recharges to attend online classes nor pay the fees.

Several unwell workers had to forgo their treatment or visit expensive private hospitals as government general wards were mostly converted into COVID-19 emergency wards. Tele-counselling facilities were arranged for the distressed migrants but it proved inadequate.

Indu Devi from Bihar, stranded in Ludhiana, with her family had an epileptic child. The family had to reduce the daily dosage of medicines for her son, hoping it would last longer. Consequently, her son had an epileptic seizure

trengthening the NREGA and PDS and expanding its coverage and forming a national database of workers for interstate portability of benefits are some of the recommendations mentioned in the article which may guarantee a life of dignity for the migrant workers.