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Migrant workers left alone during COVID-19 lockdown

May 18, 2020
tags:#Coronavirus, #COVID-19, #human rights, #migration, #daily wage worker, #marginalized communities
by:Shuriah Niazi
“After walking 36 kilometers, we were very close to Aurangabad. But everyone was feeling hungry and tired. So we slept on the railway track after eating rotis (bread). 16 People slept on the track, while three companions and I slept on the ballast lying on the side of the track. We survived because we did not sleep on track,” Sajjan Singh, one of the four survivors of a ghastly train accident in India said.

At least 16 migrant labourers were mowed down by a goods train near Aurangaband in the Western state of Maharashtra on May 8th. The workers were walking along the railway tracks in a bid to reach their homes in central state of Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of kilometres away.

The central government last week had announced that ‘Shramik’(workers) special trains would be run to ferry migrant labourers who want to return home for urgent reasons after 40 days of lockdown, but many despairing labourers have started walking back on their own due to delay in getting requisite clearances.

Devvati, the wife of a deceased labourer, Nemshah, said in Shahdol, in Madhya Pradesh that the contractor of the company where he used to work had asked him to go after the lockdown began and did not even pay the wages.

“We had also transferred some money in Nemshah’s bank account so that he could come back home. No vehicle or means of transport could be arranged for return. So they decided to come on foot from Jalna to Aurangabad and had covered about 40 km overnight. His untimely death is a big blow for us as he was the sole breadwinner in the family.”

Maharashtra has been hit worst

India is under a nationwide lockdown since March 24th to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The death toll due to the virus rose to 2206 on May 12 with 97 fatalities reported in 24 hours since the evening of May 11th, while the number of confirmed cases saw a big jump from 4,216 to 70,765, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Maharashtra, India’s most industrialised and urbanised state, has been the worst hit by the pandemic, followed by Gujarat and Delhi.

Since the start of the lockdown in the last week of March, almost all factories in the industrial areas have ceased operating, but farming activities have continued to take place, on a relatively smaller scale than usual. India announced a 3-week lockdown on March 24th, which was later extended to May 3rd. The lockdown has been further extended till May 17th although some concessions have been provided at places where fewer cases have been proven.

In wake of the countrywide lockdown, the migrant and unorganised workers were among the worst affected category of people as most of them were left with no livelihood with factories and workplaces shut down. Rendered jobless and homeless as they had no money to pay rent, many survived on charity meals provided by government agencies and voluntary organisations and stayed in temporary accommodations provided by authorities.

The unorganised sector does not have social security. As soon as the work of the employer is closed, the employment of the people working there is affected.

Desperate effort to return home

The World Bank said the lockdown in India has affected the livelihood of around 40 million casual and migrant workers in the country. Thousands of desperate workers have moved from urban centres, where they had been working before the shutdown, to their respective native places often hundreds of kilometres away.

In the first few days of the lockdown, large number of migrant workers even set on foot while trying to return to their native villages, often with families and young children on shoulders. These workers were rendered jobless as shops, restaurants and commercial establishments in the cities shut down and all business activities came to a halt. Thousands of people returned from metros to their homes in the absence of work and livelihood.

Reports said at least 20 migrant labourers and their family members died in their desperate efforts to return home.

No governmental support for daily wage workers

Rakesh Vishwakarma, who has now returned to his native village in Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh from national capital Delhi where he used to work in a restaurant, said, “the central and state governments did not think about those who survive on daily wages. Daily wage earners took to the roads and walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes in different states and at many places, they were even charged by the police for breaking the lockdown. Even after the government allowed people stranded in different places to return to their places in late April, things have not been easy. The screening and registration process is very lengthy and frustrating. Initially, the workers who did not have money to buy even food were asked to pay bus and train fare.”

Facing flak, the government has now said the workers would not be asked to pay any fare.

“The imposition of a lockdown without any preparation has impacted the poor and vulnerable communities most”, said Ajay Gupta, a social worker in Delhi. “An eight-year-old boy in Bihar’s Bhojpur district starved to death due to lack of food, only a few days after the lockdown was enforced. The child had a fever and diarrhoea as well but the family could not arrange for food and treatment due to the strict implementation of the lockdown.” Gupta said he feared the condition of the poor people across the country was deplorable.”

Losses of US$29.9 billion to India's economy

With hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, students, tourists and other people stuck in different places all over the country for over a month due to the lockdown, the government announced plans to permit their movement to help them reach their respective destinations in a planned manner, including by crossing state borders. But the lengthy registration and screening process has resulted in chaos in a number of places. There have been reports of desperate workers clashing with police and among themselves in Madhya Pradesh, while according to media reports coming from northern desert state of Rajasthan distraught workers tried to use dirt roads to shun lengthy registration and other protocols. Reports coming from other places of the country also show workers’ desperation to reach home as quickly as possible.

The nationwide lockdown has badly hit the students as schools, colleges and coaching centres have shut down and many important national level exams have been postponed. The University Grants Commission (UGC), India’s higher education regulator, has said the new academic session for freshers will begin in colleges and universities from September and for already enrolled students from August instead of July.

The Union Home Ministry has divided districts of the country into red, orange and green zones to control activities according to the risk estimation during the coronavirus lockdown. The districts with maximum number of COVID-19 cases have been kept in red zone, while those with fewer cases are in orange and green zones. Limited industrial and other activities have been allowed in orange and green zones, while restrictions continue in red zone.

A UN report assessed a trade impact of US$348 million on India due to the lockdown, making India one of the 15 most affected economies across the world. Asian Development Bank predicted that the pandemic could cause losses of up to US$29.9 billion to India's economy.

Article written by:
Shuriah Niazi
Shuriah Niazi
Embed from Getty Images
Workers were walking along the railway tracks in a bid to reach their homes in central state of Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of kilometers away.
Embed from Getty Images
The central government last week had announced that ‘Shramik’(workers) special trains would be run to ferry migrant labourers who want to return home
Embed from Getty Images
India is under a nationwide lockdown since March 24 to contain the spread of novel coronavirus.
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