New Delhi: In its rebuttal to the Freedom House report titled ‘Democracy Under Siege’ in which it has been claimed that India’s status as a free country has declined to “partly free”, the Centre has claimed that it was “misleading, incorrect and misplaced“. The Indian government then proceeded to spell out what it did for migrant workers and towards enhancing food security during the pandemic.
However, food rights campaigners and labour rights activists disagree with much of what the government has claimed.
Centre spells out ‘various measures’ it took
In its arguments against the contents of the report, the Centre said, on the specific issue of “government response to COVID-19 through lockdown’, that it took “various measures to address the situation”. In these, it referred to at least five points that covered migrant workers who faced immense hardship in taking the journey home as their workplaces shut down and public transport was brought to a grinding halt without any prior warning.
The Centre’s response said, “Government of India allowed state governments to utilise State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for purpose of providing food, healthcare, shelter to homeless persons and migrant workers” and that “the government allowed the engagement of migrant workers in various activities outside containment zones which would allow them a livelihood”.
‘Policy changes did not translate into action on ground’
However, people working with migrant workers said this was not precise the case. Talking to The Wire, Sudhir Katiyar of Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action said while the use of SDRF funds was allowed, it did not make a huge impact on the ground. “We recently organised an event in Ahmedabad on the issue of shelter for migrant workers. They allowed public rental during Covid and it was a major policy change but it has had no real impact so far,” he said.
Katiyar said his group also did a sit-in protest there demanding that the government release the existing housing stock for the migrant workers who were stranded in Ahmedabad and other cities. However, the guidelines for the policies were so tough that hardly anyone could benefit from them.
‘Migrant workers had no information of schemes, did not know how to return’
On the migrant workers being allowed to work outside containment zones, he said, in April-May they allowed workers to be employed within the states. But this was done to revive the units. However, most of the workers had by then proceeded to their native places. Many of them did not know about these measures and continued to walk towards their villages or town. Others did not have means to return to work as public transport was not operational.
As for the other claims of the Centre that it “announced a relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore which also covered migrant workers” and that it “launched a mission to boost employment and livelihood opportunities for migrant workers returning to their villages”, Katiyar said food packets were distributed to some workers who returned to their villages.
But, again, he said, the schemes did not succeed enough as “the migrant workers were not documented with them, they had no information on migrant workers and did not know how to reach out to them”.
On the other hand, he said, the migrant workers were also in a highly vulnerable state and did not know where to go and who to ask for assistance. “So in some big cities, they were provided food, but the problem pertaining to food persisted for them elsewhere.”
Also, he said, there was a major problem of rations not being distributed properly. “That again was an area where there was a lot of mismanagement.”
‘Return of workers indicates absence of employment in villages’
As for generation of employment in villages, he said, the main scheme for employment is MNREGA. “Had that scheme been successful, most of the people would not have returned to the cities. NREGA is the biggest scheme under which employment is granted. But it too is in a very messy state.”
On the Centre saying that under MNREGA the daily wages were “enhanced” and these “also covered returning migrant workers”, Katiyar said under the scheme the biggest problem is of delayed wages. “In times of COVID people would have needed payment on regular basis. But if you are making the payment after six months, it would not serve any purpose and then who will work under the scheme. The mismanagement of the scheme is a major reason which migration is there.”
Some packages and relief were provided in states like Jharkhand in the form of food packets, etc, but when it came to employment, there was no major impact, he added. Stating that about 80-90% people have returned to the big cities, he said many of them were now finding it hard to get work.
‘Food scheme came too late, millions were in distress by then’
As for the Centre’s claim in the rebuttal that “approximately 80 crore beneficiaries were provided 5kg wheat or rice, 1 kg pulses free of cost every month till November 2020 under the National Food Security Act (NFSA)”, food rights campaigner Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan said the government did announce the scheme but it came too late.
“Before imposing a hard lockdown like that what was important was that the government should have held consultations and discussions with state governments and experts and made sure that at least the basic needs of people – food and shelter – were taken care of before the lockdown was imposed. If their wages were protected and they could have stayed where they were before the lockdown, the distress would have been less,” she said.
‘Images of workers walking back symbolised lack of planning, implementation’
But, Bhardwaj charged that despite the pandemic starting internationally in January, adequate consultations were not held before the lockdown was imposed. “So what happened was that millions of families went into total distress and they lost any place to live, as they could not pay their rent and were rendered homeless, and they found it impossible to feed themselves and their families. This is why we saw the migrant workers walking back homes the way they did. Those pictures in a way symbolised the lockdown in India. That distress has to be seen as a failure of planning and implementation that was required,” she said.
In India, where nearly 90% people working in the unorganised sector, she said, it was essential for the government to realise that due to the pandemic many people would either lose their jobs and that the migrant workers and daily wagers would have no wages at all when the won’t be able to go out to work. “For people already living in poverty or on the brink, they do not have savings to both keep paying their rent and to afford two square meals for their families. So it was essential to protect their wages. But that did not happen.”