Covid-19 crisis: Caring for the migrant worker

Published: May 28, 2020 3:40 AM

The state has to learn to trust the civil society's intimate knowledge of the situation of the migrant worker. The only way to fight this pandemic is to work together

The Shramik trains that were announced with huge fanfare were run most secretively, with no information to the public about their schedule, timings, departing stations, destinations or vacancies.The Shramik trains that were announced with huge fanfare were run most secretively, with no information to the public about their schedule, timings, departing stations, destinations or vacancies.

By Vasudha Nagaraj & A Suneetha

This Sunday was relatively a quieter day since the lockdown was announced. Just two days ago, the Telangana government transported, on a single day, more than 35,000 migrant workers from Hyderabad to various destinations in about 40 trains. After two months of hectic activity, we wished to take a day off and reflect on the experience we are collectively going through.

Within fifteen days of the lockdown, income losses became visible everywhere. Despite government circulars on wages, rations and rents, private managements had stopped paying wages, government ration deliveries were poorly implemented, and landlords insisted on rent payments. While the government acknowledged three and a half lakh migrant workers, other databases declared nearly 20 lakh migrant workers. To address this yawning gap, scores of NGOs and concerned individuals stepped in with cooked food and dry rations.

Burgeoning distress calls compelled the local voluntary organisations to set up helplines for addressing food requirements. As the lockdown intensified, containment zones were declared, and barricades came up in many parts of the city seriously restricting physical deliveries of dry rations. Then we switched to online payments to grocery shops. The smartphone evolved as the primary connecting device.

Through the ration-deliveries, a new geography of the city started emerging—embroidery workers and tailors from West Bengal, construction workers from Chhattisgarh, hotel workers from Odisha, carpenters and marble workers from Rajasthan, panipuri makers from Uttar Pradesh and granite quarry workers from Assam. Just to name a few. Most of them were single men living in groups of ten and more. Were they households? Were they families? We wondered.

Lockdown 3.0 was announced on May 3. There was utter confusion between the Central and state governments about who should pay for the Shramik trains that were announced. Amidst the self-contradicting government circulars and skirmishes, the migrant workers began to walk to their homes. We were horrified to see groups of people walking with their backpacks in different parts of our city. Particularly appalling was the sight of the Chhattisgarh families with women and children, and their huge head-loads. Older children carrying younger children, women walking with infants who were just a few days’ old. We found that they were all heading to Medchal, the NH 44 highway to travel in trucks. Migrant workers who were housed in government shelters jumped walls and ran to the highway.

We had to quickly adapt to this new situation—unfolding so quickly in front of our eyes. We drove to the highway in our vehicles loaded with water, buttermilk and dry food. The numbers were so high that our supplies got exhausted in less than an hour. It was then that some of our friends set up a food camp at Medchal highway. The camp attracted scores of volunteers, and a steady stream of food supply ensued.

The food camp didn’t stop with food. The migrant walkers often didn’t have the money to pay for the trucks. Quickly we moved into negotiations with truck owners and drivers by making digital payments to them. The potentially hazardous truck travel was not our first choice. But, the desperation of the walkers and their sense of urgency left us with no choice. We simply prayed for their safety.

The contrast between the administration and the political society could not be starker. Responsive administrators and the police officers abounded, but the vertical flow of authority, knee jerk orders, and confusion about strategies, secrecy and dominance of the police constrained the effective responsiveness of the administration. Grocery store owners, travel agencies and truck owners often proved more adaptive and easier to negotiate with and responded swiftly and creatively to unusual requests.

The Shramik trains that were announced with huge fanfare were run most secretively, with no information to the public about their schedule, timings, departing stations, destinations or vacancies. The police department that was entrusted with the task of registering workers for the trains were visibly understaffed and hardly agile in this facilitation. As a result, thousands never got to register themselves, and because of long delays and lack of information, many were left on foot. Unfortunately, this resulted in a perverse situation of several trains going with less than full capacity and sometimes even cancelled on the one hand, and the highways flooded with thousands of walking workers.

The perversity got further compounded when the government started herding hundreds of walking migrants in private and state buses, and left them at the Telangana Maharashtra border. It precipitated a crisis on the border. In response to a public interest litigation, the Telangana High Court on May 22 passed an order to immediately stop this practise and put the onus on the government to provide shelter and transport migrant workers in buses or trains all the way to their destination with dignity. This order enabled thousands of migrants to be registered more efficiently and transported by trains. This was on May 23 and 24.

The 40 trains that transported 35,000 migrants, it appears, has not been the end of the story. Today at the food camp we again witnessed about 800 migrant workers helplessly waiting for transport. Concerned citizens raised funds and organised buses to Orissa, Jharkhand and UP. Another 200 are still waiting.

This is not a self-congratulatory note. By way of tweeting distress petitions to various government officials, delivering rations, organising transport and in various other ways caring for migrant workers, we have not only been creating good practises but also supplementing the efforts of the state machinery. Our effort is not just humanitarian, as it is often labelled. The state should recognise this effort and create a healthy partnership with the civil society. We have written about Hyderabad. But surely, this has been the case in every region of our country. The state has to learn to trust our intimate knowledge of the situation of the migrant worker. The only way to fight this pandemic is to value each other’s strengths and work together.

Co-authored with Sarath Davala, Vice President, Basic Income
Earth Network

Nagaraj is an Advocate in Hyderabad & Suneetha is a Senior Fellow and the Coordinator of Anveshi Centre for Women’s Studies, Hyderabad. Views are personal

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