Mumbai: Last month, the district administration of Morbi in Gujarat issued a notification asking all migrant workers working in the region to register themselves with the local police. A seemingly routine exercise, however, came with a twist. The notification said those failing to comply with the order within 15 days of its issuance will face criminal charges. In a matter of one month, at least 50 cases have already been registered against employers who have allegedly failed to comply.
That is not all, the notification issued by the additional collector of Morbi – following a letter by the commissioner of police to the district collector – cites sweeping reasons for passing this order.
The order, issued in Gujarati and translated by The Wire into English, claims:
“While examining the history of crimes like robbery, dacoity, murder, and kidnapping, the police commissioner of Morbi has noticed that often it is migrant workers, working as agricultural labourers, factory workers, workers in diamond factories, and construction workers…who commit such crimes and run away.”
The district administration, however, has no data to back its suspicious outlook towards migrant labourers.
Rahul Tripathi, the superintendent of police of Morbi district, confirmed that his department has not collated any figures to support the claim made in the notification. He says the wordings are “suggestive” and the notification was issued to help the police in “maintaining law and order”.
The FIRs, Tripathi confirmed, have been registered under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, for ‘disobedience of order duly promulgated by public servant’.
The notification further claims that many migrant workers come to Morbi after having indulged in criminal activities back home and treat Morbi as their haven. “To maintain the peace and safety of the people (in Morbi district), the police commissioner Morbi issued the following order according to section 144 of the CrPC on 7/02/2023,” the order reads.
The notification directs all private owners and managers of factories, construction businesses, foundry businesses, diamond businesses, agriculture, and other businesses to submit the details of the migrant workers employed in their businesses as per the order to a concerned police station within 15 days of issuing this notice.
Among details demanded of the labourers is also identification marks on their bodies.
The order also demands details of at least three relatives, including their full names, addresses, and telephone numbers (including of those living in villages).
Rahul S. Sapkal, an Assistant Professor at Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay has called this exercise a “colonial hangover” of looking at the migratory community as a “threat” and needing to be “closely monitored”.
Further substantiating Sapkal’s observations, Ramesh Srivastava, secretary of Majdoor Adhikar Manch points out that the migrant labourers of Morbi mostly belong to the Adivasi community from the neighbouring states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra who come to Gujarat for work.
Collecting data on migrating populations is a common practice but is to be done by the labour department from a welfare point of view. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979, in fact, mandates that migrant workers register with their parent district and that employers provide a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to the labour department.
Yet this legally mandated procedure is hardly implemented, Sapkal says. He calls the Morbi police’s role both illegal and unconstitutional and adds that the order mindlessly criminalises the entire migrating community. “Under what legal provisions are the police even seeking such data?” he asks. Sapkal, who is currently leading the project titled ‘Pandemic, Human Rights and The Future of Livelihood: An Empirical Evidence from Indian Economy,’ for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), has been closely examining the labour violations across India for past many years.
Bridge collapse: ‘Admin wants to tighten control’
Morbi, an industrial town, with a very high migratory population, was last in the news a few months ago after a pedestrian suspension bridge collapsed, causing the death of over 135 persons. The probe that followed, opened many fissures and exposed the rampant practice of employing migrant labourers in highly violative conditions. Srivastava feels the recent notification is an obvious aftereffect of the bridge collapse. “The district administration was severely criticised and as a result now they want to tighten their control over the most vulnerable in the region,” he says.
And in this case, he says, is done by using the law to control the migrant population entering the district. “Laws exist to protect its citizens but most often it is used by the state to instil fear in the minds of its citizens like we see it being done in this case,” he says.
Srivastava recalls a recent case of murder of three persons, including an owner of a factory in Surat, allegedly in the hands of two labourers from Odisha. “While the incident ought to be condemned, one can’t overlook the reasons for the dire act. The labourers had allegedly taken such extreme steps after they were denied their rightful wages,” he points out.
When The Wire pointed at the problematic parts of the notification, SP Tripathi said that it was issued by the collector’s office. He said that the administration didn’t intend to criminalise the community. “I will look into it and if need be, even alter the text of this notification,” Tripathi told The Wire.
But Sapkal says the intent of such orders doesn’t matter and it can’t and should not be justified in any way. “The moment you start justifying the state’s act of introducing unconstitutional rules, you are normalising the practice. If this goes unquestioned, soon other districts and states will replicate it (the notification),” he says.
“If anything, the police should be aiding the labour department in ensuring the migrating labourers rights are protected. Young vulnerable children often are illegally employed in hazardous industries. The police’s role comes in only to protect them. But this is a classic example of a state-induced injustice and gross human rights violation,” he adds.