The lockdown imposed by governments since March 25, 2020, to contain the spread of COVID-19 epidemic across India, now in its third phase, has hit migrant workers, among others, the hardest. Not a day goes by without stories of their travails being highlighted in the print, electronic, digital and social media.
What is the magnitude of migrant workers under distress due to the lockdown? Is it four million, or forty million or much more? The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC) under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment claims, it does not have state-wise and district-wise data despite the CLC directing the regional heads based in 20 centres across the country to enumerate every migrant worker stranded due to the lockdown within three days during the second week of April, 2020.
The problem leading to the RTI intervention
Hundreds of thousands of men, women and their children who had migrated out of their home states to other cities, towns and villages in search of gainful employment, suddenly found themselves jobless and penniless as the economy came to a grinding halt due to the lockdown. With inter-state borders sealed during the first two phases of the lockdown, they had few options for keeping body and soul together and the coronavirus at bay. They were forced into government-run relief camps or shelters or compelled to remain at the worksites of their employers or simply remain bundled up in clusters near highways and other open spaces.
Reports of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers protesting their forcible incarceration and demanding they be allowed to return to their hometowns have come from Kerala, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Surat, Mumbai and other places. Some tried to find their way back home travelling inside water and milk tankers and concrete putty mixers paying hefty sums of money to owners who sought to profit from their suffering. Even more heartbreaking are stories of migrant workers, walking alone or in groups, hundreds to thousands of kilometres under the blazing sun to get back to their families and some perishing within reach of their homes. Meanwhile, many of us saluted other frontline workers combatting the virus with sound and light shows, flypasts and fireworks on the seas.
Amidst this humanitarian crisis of gargantuan proportions, on April 8, 2020, the office of the chief labour commissioner issued a circular to his regional heads based in 20 centres across the country to collect data about every stranded migrant worker in every district and state. Templates were issued for data capture during the enumeration process. Both blue and white collared workers were to be enumerated in this manner. The regional heads were given three days to collect this data and send it to the CLC.
After waiting in vain for almost two weeks for the official announcement of the results of the enumeration exercise, on April 21, 2020, I submitted an RTI application with the office of the CLC through the RTI Online Facility, seeking the following information under the RTI Act:
“Apropos the D.O. dated 08 April, 2020 issued by the Chief Labour Commissioner to all Regional Heads regarding urgent collection of data about migrant workers who are stranded and placed in various temporary shelters/relief camps arranged by:
a) the State Government authorities,
b) employers IN-SITU/at workplace itself, and
c) where they are generally clustered in some localities:-
I am seeking access to the following information available in your office, as on date, under the RTI Act, 2005:
1) the State-wise names of districts from which data about the stranded migrant workers has been received,
2) the district-wise numbers of male and female migrant workers belonging to each of the three categories mentioned above as reported from each State,
3) the occupation-wise number of male and female migrant workers reported from each State as per the List of Occupations mentioned in Annexure-I of the said D.O.,
4) the Sector-wise number of male and female migrant workers reported from each State as per the List of Sectors mentioned in Annexure-II of the said D.O., and
5) the Native State-wise cumulative figures for male and female migrant workers according to each Occupation and Sector mentioned in Annexure-I and Annexure-II, respectively of the said D.O., reported from each State.”
Being aware of the possibility that the CLC’s office would not be fully functional, I did not seek copies of official records. Instead, I requested the CLC’s office to upload all the information described in my RTI application and inform me the URL of the database on the official website. Given the widespread debate about the plight of migrant workers and the yeomen service provided by several government agencies, hundreds of NGOs and thousands concerned citizens to ensure that many of them were served food, water and other essentials, this information I believed has an enormous public interest dimension attached to it.
The CPIO’s reply
On May 5, 2020, a day after the third phase of the lockdown began, the RTI online facility sent me an automated email stating that my RTI application had been disposed of. When I checked the status of my RTI application on the website, instead of a proper response under his name and signature, the CPIO has entered the following reply:
“As per the stat section is concerned, no such details are available based on requisite information.”
There was no indication whether my RTI application would be transferred to any other section or public authority, or if any effort would be made to collate the information from the enumeration exercise and make it publicly available.
What is wrong with the CPIO’s reply?
Under the RTI Act the CPIO has only three options available while dealing with an RTI application:
- if the information sought is not available with one’s public authority, it must be transferred to another public authority which may have custody of such information; or
- supply the information after collecting copying charges (which would not apply in my case as I did not ask for copies, but requested proactive disclosure on the website); or
- reject the RTI application if it is covered by one or more of the exemptions provided in Sections 8, 9 or 24.
The CLC’s CPIO resorted to none of these actions. He did not even send a signed reply. Most other CPIOs upload a scanned copy of their reply on the RTI online facility in addition to emailing it to the RTI applicant under their name and signature. So the CLC CPIO’s cryptic one-liner reply raises serious doubts about the availability of data about migrant workers despite the launching of the enumeration exercise. Does the CLC or any other public authority in government have accurate data about the number of stranded migrant workers or is there any reason why it does not want to make such information public?
I have already filed a complaint before the central information commission in this case requesting an early hearing. if this case is put at the end of the queue of nearly 36,000 cases currently pending before the CIC the matter may come up for hearing in 2021 when the information would be devoid of any value. As it is the enumeration figures are becoming irrelevant with the public authorities making arrangements to return migrant workers to their states of domicile by road or rail transport.
RTI activists suggest measures for more transparent and accountable implementation of the COVID relief package
Two days after the CLC issued its circular seeking enumeration of migrant workers, CHRI organised a webinar of RTI activists and advocates of transparency to take stock of the effect of the lockdown on people in general and the vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in particular.
Participants from across 12 states and UTs came identified several problems with the manner of implementation of the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana Relief Package. They also identified some practical solutions for relieving hardships people have faced due to the lockdown.
These suggestions continue to have relevance for most parts of the country during lockdown 3.0:
1) RBI must issue a circular for hassle-free reactivation of the inoperative PMJDY bank accounts (23% of the total) particularly, for beneficiaries eligible for ex gratia at their doorstep through post office employees and turning fixed location Banking Correspondents into itinerant Bank Mitras for the period of ex-gratia distribution. They may be directed to strictly adhere to COVID-19 related precautionary measures while moving about;
2) The government of India must issue circular clarifying how the free gas cylinders benefit may be availed by beneficiaries. Itinerant Bank Mitras may be roped in to disburse DBT benefit to beneficiaries at their doorstep, with due regard to COVID-19 related precautionary measures;
3) Oil marketing companies must issue strict instructions to their supplier agencies to deliver gas cylinders at the doorstep upon receiving bookings, with due regard to COVID-19 related precautionary measures;
4) District administration must be directed to make PDS supply and distribution related information available to beneficiaries on a weekly basis through the various methods of dissemination mentioned under the “Explanation” to Section 4 of the RTI Act, 2005 (disclosure through internet, radio, TV, newspapers, notice boards, other kinds of announcements using public address system and beat of drums etc.) Doordarshan’s country-wide outreach must be used for disseminating information about the manner and status of implementation of the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana package;
5) Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) must issue advisories to all State Governments to urge the respective State Information Commissions to restart work along the modalities adopted by the Central Information Commission;
6) DoPT must issue advisories to the state governments to urge the respective Lokayuktas and Anti-Corruption Bureaus to restart accepting and inquiring into complaints of corruption from the general public. A toll-free helpline may be established in every State to receive and forward complaints of corruption from the public to the respective anti-corruption bodies. These numbers must be advertised widely;
7) The Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2014 must be enforced immediately across all states by notifying competent authorities to receive and inquire into complaints of attacks and harassment of whistleblowers. The state police must be issued advisories to lodge FIRs in all such cases of attacks without delay and conduct speedy investigations to book the culprits;
8) Empowered groups of officers must be set up at the state, district and sub-district level to coordinate relief and rehabilitation efforts to between the public sector and private sector players;
9) Government agencies must not insist on production of identity proof for migrant workers for accessing benefits under the relief and rehabilitation measures. Mere self-declaration of identity and domicile status should be treated as adequate for accessing such benefits. Circulars may be issued to all State and district level authorities for this purpose;
10) Lockdown passes must be issued on a priority basis to caregivers for PwDs to provide services to them on a daily basis. Audio-visual training modules must be developed and disseminated for them to explain the social distancing and other precautionary measures to ensure that PwDs do not contract the coronavirus. All telecasts of important speeches including that of the Hon’ble PM and daily press conferences that are televised must be accompanied in real time by sign language interpretation visible adequately on the TV screens;
11) Alternative arrangements must be made for ensuring that people living in areas without mobile phones or internet connectivity are able to access their entitlements under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana without any delay;
12) Households in remote hamlets and settlements not covered by PM Ujjwala Yojana must be supplied with adequate fuel sources including firewood for daily use at their doorstep. Officials of the concerned departments including the forest department may be engaged to supply fuel to such households at least twice a week at their doorstep with due regard to COVID-19 related precautionary measures
13) There is an urgent need to reactivate lower courts in order to provide justice delivery services to the people. The statutory Legal Services Authorities at the national, state, district and tehsil levels must also be reactivated. Their contact numbers, as well as those of lawyers, empanelled to provide legal aid must be widely advertised through various mass media and other offline methods so that people may contact them for getting redress for their grievances against the administration’s actions and omissions; and
14) Governments must increase budgetary allocation for the health and education sectors. Increasing public spending on the welfare of women, children and vulnerable groups like migrant workers must become a priority.
Whether the governments will pay attention to these practical suggestions coming from the grassroots level, remains to be seen.
Venkatesh Nayak is programme head of the Access to Information Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.