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Migrants, Informal Workers: GOVT MUST PROTECT, OFFER JOBS, By Dhurjati Mukherjee, 13 May 2020 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 13 May 2020

Migrants, Informal Workers

GOVT MUST PROTECT, OFFER JOBS  

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

 

The grave situation emerging from the corona pandemic that is destined to continue for at least 6-7 months, or even till year-end, has not been really grasped by our politicians. The upper echelons of society or even the middle income sections may not be severely affected but the poor and the struggling masses shall, possibly beyond imagination. More so, because there are worrying reports that the corona virus may relapse for a second time!

 

In such a scenario, when our government is finally trying to bring back migrants to their home States, the question arises what arrangements would be made to take them back to their place of work? These migrants are in a pitiable condition, having exhausted whatever money they had in staying at their place of work for around six weeks without any earnings. But within a fortnight or even one month they may like to return to their place of work. 

 

A job crisis is staring the country and this is manifest in Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) report that found India’s unemployment rate shot up to 23.5% in April. Among large States, unemployment was highest in Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jharkhand at 49.8%, 46.6% and 47.1% respectively. The unemployment rate for the week up to May 3 showed that unemployment rate had risen even further to over 27%, the highest so far. The estimated loss of employment between March and April 2020 will be 114 million. “Given that the total count of employment is around 400 million, the loss of 114 million implies that one in every four employed persons lost their jobs”, stated its CEO, Mahesh Vyas.  

 

Pronob Sen, former chief statistician, stated recently that the CMIE data was a reflection of what is happening on the ground. Obviously, the most affected are daily wage earners and those with no security in the country, casual labourers forming about 25% of the workforce. Also in the salaried category around 40% do not have job security, implying that they do not have a valid job contract, are not eligible for paid leave and do not have social security benefits. According to another five-country survey by the British research firm, Crosby Textor Group, 86% of those surveyed in the country are worried about losing their jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic.

 

It is well known that migrant workers, which include those serving in the informal sector, labour in harsh conditions and are underpaid but can barely leave their contractor because of indebtedness. Thus low wages and hazardous environment would make life difficult for this segment as the pandemic would worsen their plight. There are varying figures of migrant workers between 51 million, as per the last census, but a more realistic figure would be around 120 million in the country, including nearly 60 million seasonal short-term migrants not counted by the enumerators.

 

Delving into the employment scenario, in agriculture it is distressing to note that 70 million or 48% of all land holdings are smaller than half hectare in size. The average size of these holdings is less than a quarter hectare. A family of five cannot survive on such a small farm even in normal times. Added to this, 42 million or 72% of all enterprises in the country are owned by a single person. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFs) found that only 9% of India’s workers are employed in enterprises with 20 or more workforce. That leaves more than 100 million workers in either smaller enterprises or agriculture, both of which are unviable. 

 

Even in normal times, banks do not necessarily give loan to these small enterprises as they are not cost effective to assess credit worthiness. According to available statistics, Mudra disbursements work out to a paltry Rs 49,136 per account by end November 2019. For a large economy, India is unique in having a large proportion of its workforce deployed in tiny micro economic units, most of which are struggling for survival.

 

This vividly portrays the conditions of the workforce, mainly the lower segments, which have always been struggling for survival and the situation has aggravated to uncontrollable dimensions, which would continue throughout this fiscal. And keeping in view the Centre’s attitude, which is just encouragement through words but little action and no financial help to any sector of the economy, the unemployment situation may aggravate beyond control.

 

The whole issue boils down to the fact micro and small units, which could generate maximum employment, have not developed and even the number in a country like ours is insignificant. Moreover, as India lacks cutting edge technology and competitiveness, the SME sector could not dent the export market and improving its performance remains a far cry. Though people are now talking that many units may relocate from China to India, it is difficult to believe this as our government cannot offer the necessary support. 

 

Any tangible action is the need of the day. Several organisations working on rural employment and about 30 concerned citizens have written to Rural Development Minister suggesting the 100-day limit be waived to give willing workers employment for the entire year. They have said that since large number of villagers lack job cards and getting new job cards can be time consuming, anyone looking for work under the rural job scheme should be given employment. Added to this, experts stated that the government should consider giving 10 days’ wages (Rs 2000 approx) per job card. 

 

On the other hand, labour-intensive units should be encouraged with money and marketing support. Transfer of the right technology, whether for small engineering units or chemicals or food processing units, has to be made available with the government bearing the cost. Prospective exports units with a potential need to be encouraged. While experts speak about these and formulate short and medium term plans, only the big players who have strong links with politicians and political parties derive benefits.

 

Given the recent downgrades in GDP estimates with Japanese investment bank, Nomura (-5.2%) and Goldman Sachs (0.4%) forecasting the economy to contract in the current fiscal, it is difficult to believe that jobs of most migrants and informal sector workers would be secure or safeguarded in the next few months. Even the raising of borrowing limit would have no effect at the micro level unless the government takes positive steps in regard to protecting the livelihood of workers after consultations with acknowledged economists, or else the consequences may be disastrous. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

11 May 2020  

 

Fuel Hike Fury: COVID 19 RAJNITI, By Poonam I Kaushish, 12 May 2020 Print E-mail

Political Diary

New Delhi, 12 May 2020

Fuel Hike Fury

COVID 19 RAJNITI

By Poonam I Kaushish

 

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. One doesn’t need any guesses to decipher in which category our leaders and State Governments fit. Else who would have the temerity to hike fuel prices ranging from Rs 1 to Rs 7 and charge corona virus cess of upto 70% on liquor? Specially at a time when the aam aadmi is grappling with their monthly budgetary expenses crippled by salary cuts and job losses. Welcome to Covid 19 desh ki rajniti: The new Carpetbaggers!

 

Our leaders’ logic defies rationality. The lockdown has resulted in a loss of revenue and excise duty, they reason. Tipplers will drink no matter what the cost of their nasha and people will be on the roads once the lockdown is lifted, so let’s in-cash. Perhaps they might be correct, but it stinks of callous disregard for a citizen’s well being. It’s akin to hitting a person below the belt when he is hurting, uncertain of what the future holds. Obviously, they seem to be guided by the dictum sabse bara rupiya! 

Arguably, shouldn’t raising taxes be the last resort? Specially when crude prices the world over have crashed. While Ministers, bureaucrats and police travel in Government vehicles it’s the citizens who have to pay out of pocket suffer. Not only do they need to commute to work or run home errands but also burn petrol by getting stuck in endless traffic jams or having to take detours as roads are blocked for VIP movement. Add to this, the cost escalation of transportation of good and essential services.

However, for our politicians these “inanities matter little, it time to sacrifice for the nation”, averred a senior neta. Really, you could have fooled me. For our politicians have turned the maxim ‘life is under no obligation to give us what we expect’ on its head. Afflicted by the acute Oliver syndrome of always asking for more and the Orwellian disorder I-am-more-equal-than-you alongside the high octane decibels of Saada Haq they simply don’t care a damn about how we live or suffer.

Think, our rulers are sarkari jawais wherein we pick up the tab for all their expenses: salaries, life-long pensions, residences, food, retinue of staff, chauffer driven cars and security. Indeed, if sobriety begins at home, should our netagan be living like Burra Sahibs in lavish five acres seven-star bungalows with manicured lawns, growing wheat and vegetables, furniture, air-conditioners, fridges and maintenance to boot, down to a Rs 10 tube-light all for free and yet, just about everybody, who’s anybody abuses power and public resources topped by being protected all at our cost. So what if it cost the tax payer an extra Rs 70 crores annually.

It doesn’t end just there. Each MP is entitled to free water upto 4000 kl per annum and electricity upto 50,000 units. Beside, Rs 30,000 of furniture, 1,50,000 local calls for 3 telephones and 50,000 free local calls during a year for  internet. Down to washing of sofa covers and curtains every three months! As also a guard. Do our jan sevaks need a sepoy to protect them from their janata they profess to serve? All paid by the aam aadmi who continue to grovel outside soliciting a favour from their undata.

Scandalously, why and for what do our netagan need fancy pay-packets, perks galore and free travel, beats me. And isn’t it ridiculous that we are paying pensions to not only former legislators but their kin on his demise. For what? Didn’t we pay them when they served us? Considering that there is no jan seva involved that needs monetary compensation? The tragedy is that over the years we have become used to the ‘more equals’ playing havoc with the people and getting away with it.

Bad luck, the hoi polloi, packed like sardines live in tin boxes atop each other. Thereby, making a mockery of social distancing resulting in increase of corona case. Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum a case in point where it is impossible to segregate the infected or quarantine them.  For over 70 years successive Governments have twiddled their thumbs instead of rectifying the ills that plague the area.

 

Questionably, haven’t we had enough? Do our rulers know the reality of Asli Bharat which they ad nauseum vow to protect? Do they care a damn? Is the aam aadmi’s well-being merely about statistics?

 

Pertinently, even as NGOs, gurdwaras and citizen groups are busy giving a helping hand by feeding labourers, poor and migrants one hears a deafening silence from our elected representatives who are cocooned in the comfort of their homes. I have neither seen nor heard either my MP or MLA come forth by providing succor or relief. Isn’t it a part of their job description?  Are they not meant to work for the janata’s welfare? Sic. 

 

Alas, we seem to live in an India where only VVIPs matter, living life in the slim strip called ‘official’ in a race for privilege. Wherein there is a wide chasm between the aam aadmi and our khaas aadmis. Leading to increasing frustration, disconnect and contempt for the rulers which results in defiance by people at large.

Most times our babus sitting in airconditioned offices just issue orders without studying the ground realities. A case in point. The Prime Minister announced a lockdown at 8PM to come into effect at midnight. None spared a thought of the lakhs of migrant workers who were left high and dry as factories closed, landlords threw them out for non-payment of rents and trains stopped. Homeless and jobless they were bundled in relief camps not up to the mark, sans money barely able to keep body and soul together.

 

Their woeful plight is heart wrenching. Daily we read about workers dying on the wayside from Delhi to Bihar due to starvation or being run over by a speeding vehicle as they cycle to Madhya Pradesh from Lucknow. On Friday 15 workers were run over by a train in Aurangabad as they fell asleep on the track enroute to Chhattisgarh. 

 

Undoubtedly, one needs neither a bleeding heart nor blindness to see how our polity capitalizes on human tragedy to fill their vote-bank coffers. Everything is kaam chalao! Busy as our netagan are enlarging their respective “relief empires” and pointing accusing fingers at each other. Tragically, exposing the political and administrative callousness towards human life. Emblematic of our rulers’ broken promises.

 

The TV media feeds off the disaster in a new circus act every night with netas of different stripes and colours doing what they do best: Tu-tu-mein-mein and finger-pointing forgetting that sound and fury signifies nothing. A vulgar tamasha of manufactured grief specially those representing Opposition parties, scrambling for sound bytes and twitter trolls.

With a new generation coming of age our rulers including bureaucrats and police need to grasp gone are the days when leaders were revered, today they symbolise everything that plagues India, warts and all. We do not need gestures which total zilch because when truth becomes a casualty one ends up with only babble and bedlam. ----- INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

9 May 2020

 

 

 

UN Foreboding RISE IN MODERN DAY SLAVERY, by Shivaji Sarkar, 11 May 2020 Print E-mail

Economic Highlight

New Delhi, 11 May 2020

UN Foreboding  

RISE IN MODERN DAY SLAVERY

By Shivaji Sarkar

 

The United Nations has raised the red flag of growing modern slavery, suppression of information and hitting sustainable development goals (SDG). Its Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Tomoya Obokata, warns “the severe socio-economic effect of the Covid-19 is likely to increase the scourge of modern-day slavery, already impacting over 40 million people before the pandemic.” Post-pandemic, the International Monetary Fund says that 400 million are slipping globally into severe poverty.

 

Back home, the Karnataka government’s initial move to keep the 3 lakh-odd labourers in lockdown, under pressure from the builders lobby and cancel all relief trains from Bengaluru for them, strangely enough is a reflection of the global problem. It symbolizes as if they are bonded labourers. Likewise, the mindset in Maharashtra against the Bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has been contemptuous though now in the face of the crisis, along with Gujarat it is too applying the brakes on their movement.

 

Not behind are Chief Ministers of Haryana and Punjab. They have dialed UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath urging him to hold back the labourers in their States. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has shown clear disinterest in their return. Wanting to “restart the economy” and keep the workers back, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa announced a Rs 1610-crore economic package for floriculturists, barbers, washermen, weavers, auto drivers and construction workers offering a one-time payment of Rs 2000 to 25000. However, given the backlash, he ended up allowing the trains as the poor started moving and he couldn’t withstand the pressure.

 

Adityanath instead has stumped everyone by issuing an ordinance, shelving all labour laws for three years to help the industrialists. It means no worker can complain even against non-payment of dues. He is apparently following in the footsteps of Gujarat, which had done it earlier. The stress on MGNREGA is also increasing. Its allocation was reduced to Rs 61,500 crore this year from Rs 71,000 crore in 2019.

 

The poor are rejecting the packages of the Chief Ministers disdainfully and want to move back whether trains are run or not. Have they lost trust in the system? Sadly, the circumstances are typically against the poor labourers. The restlessness is spreading in Nagpur, Surat, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ferozabad and Garh Mukteshwar (UP), Barmer (Rajasthan), Katni (Madhya Pradesh) and other places. They are resolutely marching towards their homes in Jharkhand, Bihar, eastern UP, Odisha and West Bengal defying the lockdown and at times even clashing with the police.

 

On May 7, Supreme Court judge, Justice Deepak Gupta, in his farewell speech lamented that the laws and legal system are geared in favour of the rich and powerful and it was the poorest of the poor who suffered the most during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. The underprivileged need the apex court’s attention and judges could no longer afford to live in ivory towers, he added.

 

The reverse march of crores to Indian villages since March 25 testifies the abysmal conditions and insecurities they are having. India’s real estate, MSMEs, large industries or the smallest courier firms are being run by these distressed people, who moved to urban centres for better conditions. According to the annual report of MSME ministry, 11 crore (110 million) are employed in 6.3 crore MSMEs of an estimated 18 crore informal worker population. They did not have a day’s earning amid the lockdown and are among the marchers or now travelers by the scarce “Shramik expresss” trains to villages.

 

Additionally, five crore retailers are in distress as their losses accumulate to Rs 7.5 lakh crore, according to Praveen Khandelwal, General Secretary of retailers body, Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT). A goldsmith or a textile or garment seller selling vegetables is now not an unusual sight in many localities.

 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says there is need for freedom of the press to ensure that such distresses are known and not suppressed. In his World Press Freedom Day message, he says “It is critical to countering COVID-19 pandemic misinformation”. As the lockdown has prompted a spike in unemployment throughout most of the world, “many previously vulnerable workers have been pushed into precarious situations lacking any protection”. The factors have increased vulnerability to exploitation, which may amount to enslavement, Obokata says.

 

A glaring example of the situation emanates from West Bengal. About 15 labourers from seaside resort Digha left their workplace walking on the railway track to avoid the local police enforcing lockdown. They travelled 70 km to Birbhum, where they were picked up by the government rail police (GRP) to be dropped back from where they started! Similar stories have come from MP, where the labourers reportedly awaited to be ferried back to its borders. As on Thursday night 500 workers were stopped at the Gujarat-MP border.

 

It is heartrending to find babies also in the crowd as the State apparatus is not allowing the labourers to use any vehicle. Some have even pedaled down on bicycles from Sangli in Maharashtra to Odisha. And labourers who were not accommodated in trains from Hyderabad started walking back to Bihar, Jharkhand and UP and told a TV reporter in disgust that they would not return even if they were offered a job or food. Simply they want to go back to the emotional security of their home and family.

 

Obokata notes, the pandemic has affected billions of such informal workers. “And between financial shocks and inadequate government, children face an even higher risk of exposure to the worst forms of child labour”. Who doesn’t know how the builders in the National Capital Region have been thriving on the toils of children and exploitation of women?

 

India must treat the poor with care and concern. They are self respecting people and are proud of whatever they do. Denying them their rights or minimum starvation wages may cause deep fissures. Worse, it can lead to a social crisis. The problem needs to be solved with empathy. It is incomprehensible why a health crisis is being dealt like a law and order problem.

 

Inaction by governments, warns Obokata would lead to sharp rise in the number of people being pushed into slavery because of the corona crisis and it is bound to hit sustainable development goals (SDG).

 

The Narendra Modi government is trying to initiate steps to help the people, but these are not good enough. Besides, the prolonged lockdown is thawing every activity. The system is crumbling. The nation wants a functional state. Let us end the lockdown and resume normal operations. The nation can chart out the best path as free functioning begins. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

9 May 2020

 

Liquor Shops Open: STATES TIPSY CHOICE!, By Insaf, 9 May 2020 Print E-mail

Round The States

New Delhi, 9 May 2020

Liquor Shops Open

STATES TIPSY CHOICE! 

By Insaf

 

Social distancing goes for a tipsy toss with liquor shops across many States opening shutters. Since Monday last, serpentine queues for booze instead of food are hitting headlines. Governments including those of UP, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Karnataka and Delhi have shifted focus on rebooting the State exchequer rather than public health. Day one revealed UP registering over Rs 100 crore from liquor sales, Karnataka Rs 45 crore, Maharashtra Rs 11 crore, Tamil Nadu Rs 170 crore, or about 20 lakh litres (though it opened liquor shops on Thursday). The tipplers’ don’t seem to bother about hike in bottles’ price—70% in Delhi, 75% in Andhra (which should get Rs 9000 cr additional revenue), Karnataka deciding 17% additional excise on all brands next week. Interestingly, AP justifies the hike to ‘discourage alcohol consumption’, whereas Delhi’s AAP government calls it “special corona fee” as it eyes making up for Rs 645 crore in revenue from alcohol sale. However, a comment of commissioner, excise department in UP sums up the reality: “I don’t think there would be any single industry with just less than one lakh work force that gives Rs 100 crore revenue (to the state exchequer) in a day.” Shouldn’t the governments have considered whether the thekas (liquor stores) would squander away the gains made so far?  Come to think of it, liquor is certainly not ‘essential’ and the over 40 days clampdown did not lead to protests. So why the tearing hurry?    

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

Andhra Tragedy

Visakhapatnam gas leak draws a parallel to the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. With both accidents taking place when the plants were being re-commissioned after days of shutdown, reveals that authorities simply don’t learn from mistakes. The gas leak at LG Polymer factory at the outskirts of Visakhapatnam on Thursday last has so far claimed 13 lives and affected 2,000-odd residents in five villages around the factory. Andhra Pradesh government has evacuated villagers around 2-km radius, offered monetary compensation and free treatment, and set up the usual high level inquiry. The Centre is too involved and dispatched a special team of NDRF to minimise damage and also of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Emergency to plug the breach at the plant. But this is not enough. Criminal negligence by both plant owners and authorities needs to be pinned. How was such a plant allowed to operate in the midst of human habitations? Was a vulnerable zone demarcated and nearby residents duly informed? Did the factory have environmental clearance, are questions that beg not just answers but firm action. 

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

Kashmir’s Successful Hunt  

The security forces in Kashmir have reason to be upbeat in COVID-19 times. Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational commander and most wanted terrorist Riyaz Naikoo was eliminated in an encounter in Awantipora on Wednesday last. Indeed, a feather in their cap, but there is need for caution, given a civilian was killed in clashes and stone pelting after word spread about it. Naikoo, a mathematics teacher in a private school, joined militant ranks in 2012 and was an aide of poster boy of militancy Burhan Wani, killed in July 2016, leading to months of unrest. Omar Abdullah tweeted: #RiyazNaikoo’s destiny was decided the moment he picked up the gun... His death mustn’t be used as an excuse by some to put more people in harms’ way by provoking violence & protests.” The caution is not misplaced. Administration anticipated public sympathy and protests. Mobile internet services were suspended before the encounter and cellular services shut after it. Normalcy will take time to return. Naikoo carried a reward of Rs 12 lakh yet it took 8 years to eliminate him. His killing, says Kashmir IGP “is a big success for us. Not only for security forces, but it will also bring relief to civilians”. Time will tell.  

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

Vande Bharat Mission

Get your act together, is the best New Delhi can ask from 10 States and UTs. With the Centre’s ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ starting on Thursday last, nearly 15,000 Indians stranded overseas are expected to return on special Air India flights from 12 countries over a week. Of the 64 flights, 15 are to head to Kerala, 11 each to Delhi and Tamil Nadu, seven each to Maharashtra and Telangana, and the rest to Gujarat, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh from UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, the US, Malaysia, Male and Singapore. This apart, the Navy has for the first time, been roped in under Operation Samudra Setu. Kerala has got its first batch of 363 from UAE but is anxious for it has had to change its quarantine strategy, as all passengers need to be screened given there was no testing abroad. However, the State has shown the way again. Some 4.42 lakh people have registered their names for welfare of expatriates. Others must take a cue as the mission may turn out to be the nation’s largest evacuation operation since the Kuwait war, with numbers even going up to 2 lakh Indians!

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

WB-Centre Bickerings

The Centre-West Bengal duel in times of Corona is never ending. North Block and Writers Building are busy finding faults with each other. Following a feedback from its two teams in Kolkata and Jalpaiguri, the Ministry of Home Affairs has listed the lackadaisical approach of Didi’s administration: very low rate of testing; very high rate of mortality; lockdown violations of overcrowding in bazaars, free movement of people in large numbers without masks, people bathing in rives, playing cricket and football, serious laxity in enforcing lockdown in containment zones, plying of rickshaws; corruption in PDS et al. Bridge gaps in surveillance and contact tracing and effectively use Aarogya Setu app, is its advice. Didi hits back saying scrap Rs 20,000-crore Central Vista project, accuses it of using Arogya app for surveillance, acting late on the crisis as it was busy ‘honouring Donald Trump and horse trading in Madhya Pradesh’ and that Centre is hell bent on maligning and heckling us! Both may have their reasons but it’s time they got on the same page, at least to fight the real invisible enemy!   

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

Karnataka Conundrum

Karnataka does a flip flop. Under flak for forcibly trying to hold back labourers and violating human rights, the government had to do revisit its decision. Chief Minister Yediyurappa shockingly had opted for builders’ lobby request rather than of thousands of poor migrant workers who wanted to head home. On Tuesday last, all special trains were cancelled on grounds it’s in “their interest”! The government withdrew its request of special trains to Railways after a delegation of Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India met with the CM, who then said industrial, construction, trade activities need to be resumed and “labourers may avoid unnecessary travel back to their natives.” It also sought to wean them with his Rs 1610 crore economic stimulus package announced on Wednesday last offering 15 lakh-odd migrants, among others, Rs 5000 plus double ration. The clampdown gave bad publicity and 24 hours later, the government announced re-starting the trains. Yediyurappa realised it’s their choice to leave or stay and State can’t treat them as ‘bonded labour’. Fingers are crossed there is no more vacillation.  --- INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

8 May 2020

 

 

 

 

Shramik Specials: NOT PERMANENT ARRANGEMENT, By Dr S. Saraswathi, 7 May 2020 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 7 May 2020

Shramik Specials

NOT PERMANENT ARRANGEMENT

By Dr S. Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

 

The Indian Railways started “Shramik Special” trains to take back to their home States migrant workers, tourists, pilgrims, students and others who were stranded due to nationwide lockdown for more than a month. The decision taken on the eve of third extension of lockdown from 4 to 17 May is a great relief particularly to migrant workers who have no work and depend on government support for food and shelter. Census of 2011 enumerated 4 crore population as migrant labourers.

 

A status report filed by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Supreme Court showed that a total of 22,567 shelters by State governments and 3,909 by NGOs were working in the country. The Government of Kerala, foremost in this regard, is running over 65 % of active shelters and relief camps numbering 15,541 for stranded migrant workers. Apart from these, employers and industries are providing food and shelter to about 15 lakh such workers in the country. Food is being provided to over 54 lakh people by Union and State governments and to about 30 lakh by NGOs.

 

Five Shramik Special trains were scheduled to run in the first batch from Nasik in Maharashtra to Lucknow in UP, and to Bhopal in MP, from Aluva in Kerala to Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, from Jaipur in Rajasthan to Patna in Bihar, and from Kota in Rajasthan to Hatia in Jharkhand.   One such special train left Lingampally in Telangana to Hatia in Jharkhand on 1 April even before guidelines were released by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Several such trains are expected to follow. The migrants will be quarantined for 21 days.

 

The trains will carry only passengers registered with the concerned State Governments and no other passengers. The arrangement is partly in response to massive protests of migrants particularly in Delhi and Maharashtra and their desperate move in many States to somehow reach their native places totally violating all lockdown norms. In any case, Union Government seems to be proceeding methodically in dealing with social problems arising from the outbreak of epidemic. There is no quick solution when the country is fighting multiple problems.

 

Shramik Special is no easy run. While many States are demanding special trains to transport migrant workers, Bihar Government is reported to have denied permission for arrival of the trains.  Protests have erupted in Chennai by “guest” workers, not provided transport in the first batch to return to their home States.

 

Tamil Nadu Government has identified 4.82 lakh guest workers of whom 3.2 lakh are in 4,228 accommodation centres and government shelters. But, there is no State-wise statistics or any information on the number wanting to go back or stay where they are. Situation is similar in all States while workers, restless and clueless about their future, become angry and unruly. In Kerala, it is claimed that there are 3.6 lakh guest workers from Assam, Bihar, Odisha, UP, and West Bengal staying in 20,826 camps spread across the State – all of them wanting to go back.  

 

Demands from State governments are of two types. Some want to send guest workers from other States back to their homes; some like Chhattisgarh want Central government to make arrangement to bring back their workers stranded in other States.

 

Running special trains does not end the problem arising from migrant workers. The evacuation exercise has to be carried on amidst chaotic conditions marked by protests of frustrated workers, and circulation of fake news and rumours creating panic. Clashes between migrants and the police are common as the situation itself is so uncommon. Providing food and shelter and other essential amenities to thousands of workers is a stupendous job unrelated to fighting the pandemic, and the task involves the risk of escalation of the disease.

 

The tragedy in the situation is that the prime concern of many political and other groups, which contribute practically nothing for controlling the epidemic, is to magnify the migrant problem. The situation continues to be explosive and has become the chief culprit in breakdown of lockdown rules and complete disregard for social distancing. It brought the migrants to the central point in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. A medical mission is obstructed by a non-medical factor and has proved the immense importance of the social context and the readiness of political interests to make best use of social problems. Migrant labour is common in many countries, but internally it does not create a separate problem as in India.

 

PILs seeking Supreme Court direction to the Union government and concerned State governments to pay basic minimum wages to migrant workers and to self-employed workers like rikshaw pullers during the lockdown period have been rejected. The court declined to interfere with financial allocations of the governments.

 

The issue of migrant labour has become an extremely crucial issue for political parties to position themselves in people’s mind. The Congress Working Committee adopted a Resolution on 25 April (Thursday) drew the attention of the Central government to the necessity of framing a policy under which migrant workers could return to their homes if they wished and should be provided with health, safety conditions, food and adequate money till then, be allowed to return to their work after lockdown, and given compensation for loss incurred during the crisis period.

 

The Indian Constitution gives all citizens freedom to move to any State and has no system of State citizenship. It goes without saying that migrant workers may return to their work if their former employers agree. The arrangement is between the employers and workers and no government is bound to take care of their travel to the workplace after lockdown. Present situation is a national health emergency requiring humanitarian relief and rescue work and once the pandemic subsides, there is no crisis.

 

It is time to open our eyes to the status of migrant labour – most of them living under the mercy of contractors and placement agencies. Both agriculture and industry depend heavily on migrant labour for efficiency and economy. Many of these workers, who are employed as daily wage workers, are far away from their homes -- an unpleasant working condition that hitherto has not bothered anybody.

 

Hence, in the place of purely humanitarian considerations, a rights approach must be framed based on due recognition of the importance of the growing sector of migrant labour in our economy and granting certain rights and security to them.

 

The plight of migrant labourer, considered as a social issue, raises questions over the relative responsibility of State and Central governments or of the “host” or “guest” State or that of the employers and workers. But, this is not the time to assume positions on rights and responsibilities and play irresponsible politics. Questions of responsibility will remain to be tackled after the present crisis.

 

Migrant labour, an important component of labour market in India, has given rise to a huge humanitarian problem. The economic consequences of the exodus of these workers will have to be faced after the epidemic crisis. How many of them will be willing to return to their work is a big question. Shramik Specials cannot become permanent. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

New Delhi

5 May 2020

                              

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