A Long Look at Exactly Why and How India Failed Its Migrant Workers    

Hours of thinking and reams of paperwork, intended to prevent a crisis such as this, have been ignored or pushed aside.

One can safely declare, without even comparing word counts, that the never-ending plight of migrant workers and the informal sector has surely pushed other coronavirus-related issues in the background.

For the first time in the history of independent India have the two issues grabbed national attention, though between them, migrants make better ‘copies’ and offer heart-rending visuals to those who still nurse values. The eerie silence of the nation’s most loquacious prime minister has strengthened the narrative of utter indifference, though he has, of late, been making feeble comments in sotto voce.

In fact, the images of literally hundreds of migrant workers killed while trudging unbelievable distances home, mainly on foot, do not seemed to have excited the regime at all, as much as ensuring inhuman working hours did.

The Union of India, however, argued most vehemently before an unusually accommodative apex court that no directions need to be issued to it, as it rolled out unverifiable statistics of how it had stretched its helping hand to those on the long march back. 

Without further ado, let us go straight to the root of the problem, which is bigger than just the visible destitute who trudge along so pathetically. As hinted, the issue involves the ‘informal sector’ or ‘unorganised labour’ of which the migrant workers are a large part.

We must remember that a small segment of migrant labourers walking back home or suffering in silence as they stay put — the latter, incidentally, a sizeable number — belongs to the ‘unorganised’ category, for they work in units registered under labour and factory laws.

But let us declutter the argument and focus less on such exceptions. The finance minister has now revealed that eight crore migrant labourers, who are not covered under state and central food distribution systems, would be provided with free food grains for two months.

Also read: Deserted, Demeaned and Distressed: The Lot of Migrant Workers in the Delhi-Haryana Region

This would account for Rs 3500 crore out of the manna from heaven of Rs 20 lakh crores — which comes to a remarkable 0.175%. This estimate has been lowered in the cabinet meeting of May 20 to Rs 3109 crores, reducing the percentage of funds meant for distressed migrants to 0.155% of Rs 20 lakh crore.

This estimate of Rs 8 crore is well above the figure of 5.6 crore migrant labourers that the 2011 Census had located. This is, indeed, a tricky area because of the seasonal nature of much of the migration for employment, whether within the state or to other states. For instance, while the number of inter-state migrants grew at 55% between the 1991 and 2001 Censuses, it came down to 33% between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses.

The devil in government announcements, however, lies invariably in details and if only 8 crore migrants labourers are to be covered, it will simply not do, as they have families to look after.

Stranded migrants arrive at Danapur railway station from Kerala amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, in Patna, May 4, 2020. Photo: PTI

In that case, we have to provide for 40 crore souls, or maybe even more, as they usually have larger families. But then, we have 5 crore tons of rice and 3 crore tons of wheat in government godowns, much of which is best consumed before rot sets in.

The overall number is quite substantial, almost 30% of our population, which corroborates the postulate that four out of five people below the poverty line move all around for work and choose not to starve in their villages. But having worked in the bureaucracy for too long, one dreads to imagine how the mostly-corrupt cutting level of tehsildars and inspectors may maul the good-intentioned move.

Our army of pot-bellied, pan-chewing omnipotent government functionaries may well interpret ‘migrants’ to mean those who are still limping home, without getting killed en route, and exclude those who have already returned to their villages with giant blisters on their feet.

We all know how poor people have to grease the system even for their legitimate dues. Thus, immediate clarifications need to be issued in chaste bureaucratese, in all languages, to protect the vulnerable from the avaricious or bumbling foot-soldiers of a genetically indifferent state. Exact names and identities are yet to be fixed for those without ration cards and had the government known exactly who exactly these shadowy people were, the problem may not have exacerbated to such unmanageable proportions.

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We have to think beyond the reflex paranoia about Aadhaar cards and privacy violations so as to come up with a really well thought out scheme for this class that has suffered such an unprecedented current crisis. We just have to devise a digital multi-purpose benefit smart-card, that can be used anywhere, to draw money without queuing at remote banks and this improved DBT has to work at ATMs and other points and also entitle these devastated sections to draw their rations from wherever.

Big brother is here for ever and will snoop even if we do not walk this extra mile for the wretched of the earth. The data of 60% of India that does not require doles can continue to stonewall the surveillance state from misusing personal data. 

But then, let us find out who exactly was responsible for this Tughlaq-style mess. It is not that we had never known that this problem existed. ‘India’ was full aware that millions from ‘Bharat’ had populated their cities and this ‘India’ had become so addicted to their help that life was unimaginable without them.

So deep had they entered our mind-space that stereotypes became embedded — like the farm labourer from Bihar, the domestic maid from West Bengal, the sturdy foundry worker from Jharkhand, the indefatigable ones from Uttar Pradesh and others from Odisha or Rajasthan.

Loyalties, however, proved to be fickle, both ways, since market forces override ethics in a globalised economy — where must-haves invariably corner the have-nots. Now that the regime is keen to pass the buck on to the states, let us take a quick look at the constitution, especially on the limited issue of inter-state migration.

Article 217 read together with ‘list 1’, under the seventh schedule clearly mentions ‘item 81’, namely, “inter-state migration and inter-state quarantine” to be a power of the centre. The central government alone is empowered to deal with this in general, and inter-state migrant workers are surely a part of the ‘power’ and the responsibility. The list of states’ powers and responsibilities clearly do not mention ‘inter state migrants’ but that does not absolve them totally, as they are both recipients of such labour and exporters as well.

The Concurrent List of powers on which the centre and states can both legislate and administer has quite a few relevant entries. Item 22 mentions “trade unions, industrial and labour disputes” while item 24 cites “welfare of labour” and allied issues.

Frankly, these have helped organised labour to a large extent, but the unorganised sector was always a pitch black area under the lamp. It is a hard fact that trade unions were more bothered about their own fee-paying members and in getting further gains for them. They are partly to blame for ignoring the great bulk of the amorphous informal workforce.  

After the central government fired from both barrels in March, Amit Shah’s home ministry arrogated all powers to itself and all others went ‘off the air’ — except a circumspect joint secretary of the health department who ventriloquised what the puppeteer actually spoke. While a baton-wielding home secretary kept on issuing rapid-fire orders under section 6(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act of 2005, largely in compliance to the explicit orders of his two bosses, major problems concerning the most distressed section and of hungry unemployed workers just fell through the gap.

The point is that if the labour ministry was allowed a slice of the sunlight or co-opted without trepidation into the decision making process, migrant labour may have figured as an issue, along with the clanging of pots and the lighting of lamps. There was, frankly, no powerful advocacy for this non-enfranchised lot, more so as the dreaded pair that runs the country with an iron fist is not particularly famous for compassion.

States were in an utter daze to begin with, as it were they who had to fight unexpected bushfires, while cameras rolled on the nations leader, whose recipe of clanging pots and lighting lamps grabbed headlines. Much of the legitimate dues of states were being held back by a recharged omnipotent centre. This was and is cruel, as the frontline in the ‘war’ on the coronavirus was manned by states. After all, infections were blowing all around the states and so were rising deaths, while North or South Blocks of Delhi were issuing their regular fatwas

Migrants walking to board a train to Jharkhand from Central Railway Station, in Chennai, May 13, 2020. Photo: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

Let us just touch upon the intertwined problems of unorganised labour before focusing on its currently-disturbing component of migrant labour. In addition to all-India censuses, national sample surveys (NSSO statistics) and other more esoteric exercises of economists and statisticians have regularly thrown up huge numbers of unorganised labour. We even have granular details of self-employed and those working in crafts, unregistered factories, construction, mining and farms, but all in number not in terms of (say) a Ram Lal of Siwan.

Successive five-year plans have paid more attention to poverty eradication as a whole, because these programmes help lift considerable numbers above the poverty line, benefiting thereby the unorganised sector as a whole. But the game of snakes and ladders continues, as unbelievably large numbers are added every year and they slide downwards below the poverty line.

This dark morass is, of course, a visible embarrassment to the wafer-thin upper crust that is annoyed because it pulls back their ‘shining India’, not realising that it thrives because this black hole keeps expanding every year.

In 2005, the Left allies and the pink section of the Congress ensured that an unemployed, India-returned Arjun Sengupta was made chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS). I had to be associated with this august body, for no fault of mine, and help produce a weighty comprehensive report on the poorest of the poor, from a rather posh office on Tolstoy Marg.

This tome was entitled Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector and it was submitted in 2007 to the then Prime Minister, who was also an economist.

It contained a part-chapter on migrant workers, which is of great interest to us, but it sadly said nothing new beyond what a first-year graduate student is expected to know. The estimates of the NCEUS were based on the 2001 Census that placed India’s population at 102.7 crores  and the report declared that 34 crores  or 39% of the population belonged to the category of ‘unorganised workers’.

It did not even try to guess the floating section of migrants, and moved on to say that just 6 crore of the workforce was in what we call the organised or factory-mines-services sector. This minority is, however, visible, vocal, usually unionised and obviously hogs almost all the benefits under the labour laws, however imperfectly.

Extrapolating these findings over present numbers would mean that there are some 53.8 crore unorganised workers in India, out of the current population of 138 crore, and this number covers those in  agriculture, mining and service sectors as well.

In fact, the Sengupta committee report mentions that “among the unorganised sector workers, a considerable proportion (about 65%) is engaged in agricultural sector, which in turn indicates the prominence of rural segment in the informal economy”. The endless trails of migrant workers we see on their painful trek home consist of a large numbers of seasonal farm labourers, who had migrated to prosperous states to help harvest the Rabi crop.

A migrant labourer with his family walks along a road to reach Sarai Kale Khan for travelling back to his native place Madhya Pradesh, during the ongoing lockdown, at Anand Vihar in New Delhi, May 13, 2020. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

There are several other reports that give corresponding figures viewed from different highly-academic angles, but it helped the devastated migrant workers precious little, as neither this government nor its predecessor had set up an appropriate administrative machinery to actually fructify desired goals.

There is little point in telling us that our economy is run by some 6.5 crore enterprises which employ over 90% of the labour force.

The fact is that the report had also warned us 13 years ago about that growing “in-formalisation of the formal sector” and that “the entire increase in the employment in the organised sector…..has been informal in nature”. Since then, the terms of trade have become even more adverse where unorganised workers are concerned as neo-liberal economics demands a pool of impoverished workers, especially as ‘formal employment’ is much too expensive and troublesome.

Much of the credit for this lies with archaic Soviet-era factory and labour laws that are said to fatten predatory inspectors. The unionised sector has surely won many hard earned battles against adversarial ‘capital’, but since all governments irrespective of colour publicly seduce the entrepreneurial class most passionately, they demand several pounds of flesh.

For them, the economics of expected wages, emolument and entitlements  just do not work out. The ‘hire and fire policy’ demanded by them would circulate employment among the poor, through legitimised blackmail, but it is likely to increase jobs in an otherwise-jobless scenario.

Also read: What Removing Labour Protections Will Mean for India’s Workers

This does not mean that a hide-skinned chief minister can suspended 35 out of 38 labour laws for a period of three years, through an ordinance called ‘Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020’.

Even so, it is time to re-examine old taboos against discussing labour reforms but policy makers need to flip both sides of the coin several times with an open mind before deciding. Common sense dictates that the ‘high-cost better treatment’ (we can’t call it ‘pampering’) reserved for 10% of the labour force that happens to be in the organised sector, especially with scandalous work-to-wages ratio public sector, has surely deterred governments and investors from extending similar benefits to the unorganised 90 percent of the labour force. 

After this report of 2007, the Sub-committee of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) went into further details and estimated that “the contribution of unorganised sector to GDP is about 50%”. We love statistics more than action and, therefore, yet another committee was constituted by the National Statistical Commission, headed by R Radhakrishnan only to go deeper into ‘Unorganised Sector Statistics’.

According to it, “informal workers constitute 92% of the total workforce and…based on an empirical measurement, (there is) high congruence between this segment of the workforce and 77% of the population of…the poor and vulnerable”. This committee’s contention that numbers below the poverty line “increased from 81.0 crore in 1999-00 to 83.6 crore in 2004-05” is surely on the higher side, but the point is who in governance was listening, except before elections?

Also read: COVID-19 Lockdown: In April, MGNREGA Work Crashed to Lowest in 7 Years

This Radhakrishna Committee report of 2012 hardly came of any use during the most terrible crisis faced by the sector. The Sengupta report was even more indignant at the callousness of successive governments and had suggested several measures like new labour laws and labour rights for the informal sector on the pattern of organised labour. It insisted expanding the social security system available for labour in the informal sector but the Congress regime had already introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in 2005.

Other schemes were introduced thanks to the constant prodding of the National Advisory Committee chaired by the Congress president, many of which were added to or tinkered with by the present government. Fancy names and abracadabra acronyms, obviously suggested by copywriters and tag-liners of highly-paid advertising agencies, were introduced by the present regime with a lot of fanfare, but none focused on migrant workers. 

We understand by now that while big numbers have always floated all around us, no worthwhile effort has really been taken to   locate and identify through any unique identity card that frisky component of unorganised labour called migrants. This task is hampered by the ‘here today gone tomorrow’ syndrome, but then, administrators are paid to come up with suggestions and workable systems.

Yet, so trained are bureaucrats in craning up to look intently at political masters for guidance and priorities, that most develop neck problems. The short point, therefore, is that the regime needs to take the initiative to legislate and then to demand implementation of a new law to identify each migrant worker by name. even if they are part-time. Unless we can know and reach benefits to each such worker — which is not impossible in a digital age — the present fiasco will be repeated. To locate the only positive step taken to protect migrant labour we have to go back by 51 years, to the heydays of socialist hopes, 1979.

The Janata party government passed the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. It mandated that labour contractors who export workers to other states have to register at both ends and take licences. Those who employ more than five migrant labourers are duty bound to provide proper wages, housing, medical facilities, pass-books, displacement allowance and anything else that the government of dreamers could cobble together.

The Act is to be implemented by the Chief Labour Commissioner (Central) or the CLC (C), who is also supposed to implement 14 other equally demanding laws. These include many that are under the hawk-eyes of powerful trade union leaders. 

These leaders were too hard-pressed with their own organised workers to really find time for floating workers from other states, and needless to say, the CLC also had neither so many offices all over India, nor the patience. This does not mean, however, that builders and small enterprises did not have to cough up when even a minor official of the CLC’s set-up visited them and read out the Act.

We now understand why these masses of inter-state workers just fell through the crack, in spite of laws in their favour. We must appreciate that political parties go only after their voters and those who are not on the local electoral rolls can hardly interest them.

A migrant, travelling to Telangana, carries his luggage on his head while walking down the Chennai-Kolkata National Expressway in Chennai. Photo: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

This applies even to cadre-based parties like the Communists or the BJP and its pater, the RSS, all of which have millions of workers. Some local committee or shakha, may surely have been involved in helping in stray cases, but in the current top-down scenario where the supremo does not even consult his cabinet ministers, it is unlikely that a provincial leader who is nearer to the ground would dare to tell him about the plight of inter-state workers.

True to the nature of the victor of Gujarat-2002, the more the media, both television and print, highlighted the human tragedy, the more was he convinced that it was all a conspiracy of the left and liberals to challenge his infallibility. The resultant auto reaction consisted of an imperious disdain, a deafening silence and a broad hint to his minions and bureaucrats that the rabble be ignored, till even his own snoops became bold enough to report that this was backfiring. Even the RSS feels that the growing unpopularity of the regime needs to be halted.

Moreover, the much-promised package of relief and rehabilitation, mainly to assist corporates, MSMEs, banks, financial institutions and, of course, people closer to the regime, could hardly be announced  without at least dedicating a slice of it — a thin one, as we have seen in the opening part — for the hardest-hit stranded unorganised migrant workers.

It was thus favoured with 0.175% of the much-touted Rs 20 lakh crore Atmanirbhar package. This has recently been lowered to 0.155%. Time and patience have, however, both run out and crores of desperate migrants have reached home by now or are close to it, with little to thank the mighty orator they elected.

Those who could afford and get seats have piled on to Shramik Special trains or by buses and trucks that charged exorbitant rates, social distancing be dammed.

Also read: 3 Migrant Workers Sell Life’s Possessions to Get Plane Tickets, Learn Flights Have Been Cancelled

The problem is with those who cannot afford to pay and are walking hundreds or thousands of miles, with many perishing on the ways. Even the Supreme Court appeared ruffled when it was begged to intervene and prod indifferent governments. There are chances, nevertheless, that this pathetic chapter of our national history may actually be over soon.

On May 20, two months after the single-man-made crisis blew up, the cabinet finally approved the proposal to  distribute free wheat and rice to 8 crore migrant workers. To operationalise a political promise into an actionable plan, the centre has directed states to lift stocks and start distributing within 15 days, hopefully after clarifying that their families are covered. 

Having traversed quite a large field, we must now head towards suggestions and conclusions.

We are already in the business of short term first aid, but before we come to the long term and medium term must-haves, we cannot but mention the great shock that all those who advocate rights and relief against hubris-fired state received from the Supreme Court recently.

The summary manner in which their lordships dismissed all petitions that challenged the governmental version of ‘facts’ has astounded and pained the conscientious. Misleading statements were made regularly before the apex court by the most insensitive and repressive government in the history of free India.

On March 31, the Solicitor General of India stated quite nonchalantly:

“there is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns/villages”.

The Court accepted without question and even believed hollow assurances that whatever best was possible has been and is being done. The overriding mass of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary in the public domain meant little and the exasperation of the honourable court was quite apparent.

No one really expected the judiciary to shoulder executive responsibilities, and all that was prayed for was to direct the executive to be more compassionate and prompt. This is what legendary judges of the apex court have done in the past and they have raised our expectations, that the last port of call in a troubled democracy would not fail us.

The High Courts at Madras, Karnataka and Gujarat, however, did their bit to restore our faith in the idea of justice by issuing directions, sometimes even suo motu, directing state and central governments to assist the hapless, stranded workers and ensure their transportation home.  

Moving from the short to medium term solutions, we must insist that the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code must be taken up in the next session of parliament. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2019 and cleared in February this year by the Standing Committee with Opposition party members on it. This code seeks to subsume 13 old labour laws, including the terribly ineffective Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979.

Representative image of a woman migrant worker returning to Bihar’s Danapur station. Photo: PTI

Though it promises to give more rights to migrant workers than the earlier law, we must remember that everything depends on implementation and not on desires. In this digital age, we may stress more on block-chained digital administrative techniques, like smart cards for inter-state workers.

This is not a pipe dream, so we may as well move on to the last point, the long term solution. Within a few months of the Modi era in 2014, his labour ministry announced that it was planning to undertake a census of workers in unorganised sector and assign them a unique identity. This would give them social security benefits including health insurance and old age pension, and it would eliminate chances of duplication by linking them to Aadhaar cards.

Labour ministry officials had obviously done their homework and planned to link it with ‘direct benefits transfer’ to the bank accounts of beneficiaries, and even food security could be incorporated into this scheme. 

What happened in the last five years is not known and had the ministry succeeded in identifying and distributing these special identity cards in these years, we could have known to a large extent who was stranded where.

The very word ‘census’ has unfortunately been acquired dreaded connotations because the ruthless duo made it so with a discriminatory citizenship law. But this digital identity card proposal is eminently doable — now that ration shops will have data on migrant workers.

All we need to do further is to think ahead and ensure that the card is really multi-purpose and install thousands of card-readers at every possible point, from railway stations and bus termini to post offices and ration shops. Migrants may just touch their cards at any location and their terribly-critical ‘present dwelling’ data would be available to a state that is obsessed with capturing and crunching data.

Like every positive measure, even this is prone to misuse but after the hell that the migrants are going through, every god step is god.

The state could also not evade its responsibility and would be compelled to do something beneficial rather than asking citizens to move clang metal and light superfluous lamps.

Jawhar Sircar is a former IAS officer who was secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India.