Bhubaneswar: Migrant workers hailing from Odisha, stranded in different parts of India since the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus began on March 25, 2020, were relieved when the state government announced plans for their return home on April 26. The announcement by chief minister Naveen Patnaik came after reports emerged of unrest among workers in Surat demanding to be taken home to Odisha.
Patnaik had stated, after discussions with his counterparts in states including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Kerala, that stranded workers would be brought back to Odisha by train, after registering with the state government. Within 48 hours of Odisha launching a web portal for registration, 4.82 lakh people had applied to return. Rough estimates put Odisha’s migrant worker population at around 20 lakh. Till date – day 46 of the lockdown – nearly 50,000 workers are believed to have returned to Odisha.
Many workers, however, have seen their hopes of getting home fade, as the Odisha government’s registration process excludes those without an Aadhaar unique identity number. Sushant Bhat and Bharat Bhoi of Delanga block in Puri district are two such stranded migrants who had planned to return to their families, only to find they couldn’t register on the state government portal as they do not have Aadhaar numbers.
Two years ago, both Bhat and Bhoi migrated to Wada in north Maharashtra’s Palghar district to work in a plywood factory, alongside 28 other migrant workers from Odisha. After the lockdown was announced, work at their factory stopped abruptly, as did their wages. They could depend only on their meagre savings. “We thought once this lockdown gets over on April 15, we will return to our village. But it was extended to May 3 and now once again it has been extended to May 17. In this situation, we want to return to our family”, Bhat told The Wire via on the phone.
Of the 30 Odisha workers in their factory, 28 were able to register online to return to their villages. Only Bhat and Bhoi hit a roadblock when the portal refused to let them complete the registration process, without providing an Aadhaar number. “We both are left out because we don’t have Aadhaar numbers. These people will leave for Odisha within a few days and we will be left alone in this place,” said Bhoi, adding that he is living in fear and anxiety. “We want to go home, we have come here for work, now work has stopped and we are idle. The news of rising cases of coronavirus creates panic, we don’t want to die here,” he said.
Bhat’s father Laxmidhar, speaking to The Wire from their native village of Jharpada in Delanga, said his son had neither an Aadhaar number nor a voter identity card to show as identity proof. “Due to a lack of availability of work in Jharpada, Sushant has always migrated to other places for work and comes home only during crop-cutting season, with hope of getting some work here,” said Laxmidar Bhat. When asked why Sushant doesn’t have ID proof, his father replied, “Whenever our village sarpanch announced enrolments, Sushant was always absent. Because he migrates to other places for livelihood, he was excluded from the process”.
Mahendra Parida, a trade union leader in Odisha, told The Wire that the state government should make providing Aadhaar number optional, and other IDs besides Aadhaar, such as voter ID, driving license or bank account number, should be allowed. “Also, the government should engage youths and civil society groups to help semi-literate migrants with the online registration process,” said Parida.
Section 7 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 expressly states that proof of Aadhaar to establish a person’s identity is only ‘necessary for receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services’ for which expenditure is incurred, or the receipt therefrom forms part of the Consolidated Fund of India. The section also provides that if a person doesn’t have an Aadhaar card, then alternate viable means of identification for receiving the said benefits or subsidy shall be offered to such person. This section has been upheld by the constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India in its 2018 judgment in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India.
“Aadhaar card number cannot be used as the sole proof of identification for the purposes of granting entry to labourers who are wishing to return to the state. The state government cannot exclude migrants for failure to produce an Aadhaar card,” asserted Sandeep Patnaik, an activist and core member of the Odisha Distress Mapping and Mitigation Initiative, a WhatsApp group of volunteers that is reaching out to migrants stranded outside the state.
“We have decided to appeal to the state government to accept other proofs of identification which shall be treated as an alternate to Aadhaar card as valid for the exercise of granting entry to the labourers,” Patnaik told The Wire. “There are many tribals, physically-challenged persons, women, children and transgender persons who do not have Aadhaar numbers to produce and are migrant workers. The state government should make some provisions to bring them back,” said Patnaik.
Meanwhile, on May 8, the Supreme Court stayed an Orissa high vourt interim order passed the previous day, which had directed the state government to allow only those stranded migrant workers who test negative for COVID-19 to return. The high court interim order, which came in response to a public interest litigation filed by one Narayan Chandra Jena, had briefly brought a halt to the entry of all migrant workers into the state. Reportedly, panic had spread among stranded migrant workers and their relatives.
“The intervention by the Supreme Court to stay the order of the Orissa high court regarding entry of only COVID-negative migrants is surely a sigh of relief for the lakhs of anxious stranded labourers. Now the migrant workers are not required to be tested for COVID-19 before boarding trains and buses to return home. Hopefully, our courts are alive to the untold misery of stranded migrant workers during the pandemic,” said Ishwar Mohanty, an advocate.
But it won’t bring any relief to Jagannath Dasa, 50, who wants to return home from Surat, where he has been working at a power loom for a long time. Das does not have an Aadhaar number. “Due to lack of work opportunities in Odisha, we had come here for our livelihood. Now, when we want to return to be with our family during this situation, the state government should allow us. We should not be left out because of failure to produce an Aadhaar number. If the government doesn’t listen to our plight, I will cycle home,” Das told The Wire over the phone.
Surat is almost on the same latitude as Bhubaneswar. It’s a 1,630 km journey across India’s mid-riff, in the height of summer.
Rakhi Ghosh is a freelance reporter based in Odisha.