On Monday, the first day of the monsoon session of parliament, in response to questions posed by Lok Sabha MPs, the Centre said it had no data on migrant workers who died as a result of the imposition of the coronavirus lockdown. The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has responded comprehensively to the questions, which The Wire is republishing in full, with minor edits for style and clarity.
Sixteen migrant workers were run over by a cargo train while sleeping on the railway track on their walk home, 47 died of exhaustion on their thousand kilometre walk home on foot because they were out of food, 96 workers died in their journey aboard Shramik trains on their way home. These are just some categories of at least 971 documented non-COVID deaths during lockdown. Most of them are of migrants and their families. And, these are conservative figures. These deaths were closely tracked and painstakingly compiled by students and researchers.
It is almost in anticipation of a day like September 14, 2020, when the Government of India (GoI) denied that these deaths even happened because they did not collect this data. The cause of these grim statistics point directly to the unilaterally imposed, unplanned lockdown by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi from a pulpit behind a television camera on March 24, 2020.
[Union minister of state for labour and employment Santosh] Gangwar’s response to questions concerning migrant workers’ deaths and loss of livelihoods in the Parliament has exposed the utter incompetence and callousness of the Ministry of Labour and Employment for the lives of the very workers it is mandated to protect. The GoI has absolved its core responsibility to compensate or address this issue by declaring that it has no data.
Since the GoI has evaded its accountability of having manufactured the biggest humanitarian crisis in India since 1947, we, the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) will attempt to systematically respond to the six questions posed by K. Navaskani, Suresh Narayan Dhanorkar and Adoor Prakash. Several other MPs also raised questions about steps being taken by the government to address the distress of migrant workers.
In May 2020, the Supreme Court of India took suo motu cognizance of the migrant crisis that was caused due the COVID-19 lockdown. During the hearing, the solicitor general, Tushar Mehta, stated that, “We have shifted over 1 crore migrant labourers and over 92,000 meals have been served to the migrant workers as on 26 May.”
As part of the judgment, the court directed the Central government to “give details of all schemes which can be availed by migrant workers who have returned to their native places.”
We present some key insights from eight different compilations and studies (including SWAN) that have been put out by reputed organisations, economists, universities, research institutions and journalists and are all available in the public domain. Each of these presents data on deaths, extent of loss of livelihoods and income, and food insecurity created due to the lockdown.
Answers to Unstarred Question No. 174 Regarding the Return of Migrant Workers to Their Hometowns to be answered on 14.09.2020
Will the Minister of LABOUR AND EMPLOYMENT be pleased to state:
a. whether the Government has the data of migrant workers who returned to their own states from various states during the national lock down period and if so, the details thereof, State-wise;
Government Response: A statement is enclosed
b. The number of such labourers died/ injured during migration to their native places due to such lockdown, State/ UT-wise
Government Response: No such data is available
SWAN Response: During the course of the various lockdowns, as of 4 July 2020, there have been at least 971 deaths, according to one curated data source. There may be many other cases that have not been included here but have been reported and fact checked by civil society groups, the media and local administration.
c. whether the Government has provided any compensation/economic assistance to the victim‘s family and if so, the details thereof
Government response: No such data is available
SWAN Response: In response to an accident that occured in Uttar Pradesh that left 24 migrant workers dead, the Prime Minister on May 16, 2020, tweeted, “An ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the next of kin of those who lost their lives due to the unfortunate accident in Auraiya, UP has been approved from the PM’s National Relief Fund.” The GoI has not made any public statement substantiating the payment of these ex-gratia amounts.
In response to the deaths of exhausted migrant workers on the railway tracks of Aurangabad, the Railways has stated that since the workers were asleep on the railway tracks, which is a crime, there will be no payment to the victims’ families.
On the 80+ shramik train deaths, no compensation has been paid. Media reports as of June 28 state that “railways officials are still collecting the data and the exercise is not complete as states are yet to send the required data”.
d. whether the Government has done any assessment of the job loss among migrant workers due to the COVID-19 crisis and if so, the details thereof
Government response: No such data is available
SWAN Response: There are several studies that have provided figures that estimate the job loss, income and food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown. We cite only a few here with sample size. The Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University has put together a comprehensive compilation of studies here.
(Table 2 can be found in document embedded below)
e. whether the mostly migrant workers returned to their home by walking due to no arrangements by the Union Government in time; and (f) if so, the details thereof and reasons therefore?
Government response: The Indian Railway has operated more than 4611 Shramik Special Trains for convenience of the workers. More than 63.07 lakh migrant workers have been shifted to various destinations located in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and other States. Food and water was also provided free of cost to the workers during their journey.
SWAN response: It was more than one month after the total lockdown was imposed without any relief for migrant workers stranded in cities without cash and food, that the Ministry of Home Affairs issued its first set of orders related to migrant travel. By this time thousands had already begun walking or reached home on foot, in what will be remembered as one of the largest movements of people since partition. These orders were confusing, conflicting and vague. The travel protocols established by different state governments had many gaps. Consequently, a second exodus of migrant workers walking home has begun with tragic reports of deaths along the way. A detailed documentation of the issues related to travel and the tragedies that ensued can be found in the third SWAN report: To Leave of Not to Leave? Lockdown, Migrant Workers and their journeys home.
It is a matter of national shame and a continued assault on the dignity of the estimated 45 crore informal workforce that even five months after the lockdown, the GoI has no data on deaths and distress. In fact the numbers presented in the Parliament yesterday are not starkly different from those presented by the Solicitor General in the Supreme Court during the hearing in May.
As per the 2017 Economic Survey there are about 13.9 crore migrant workers. The finance minister announced a relief package assuming there are 8 crore migrants. The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner stated that there are 26 lakh migrants. In light of their own estimates, albeit conflicting, the GoI’s response stating that it does not have the data or does not have access to it is an act of renunciation of its duties and an attempt to hide its negligence behind a purported absence of data.
The least that the GoI could have done is clicked on the hyperlinks of these reports and responded to the people of India in the parliament. It should be unacceptable to every Indian that watched the humanitarian crisis unfold on their TV screens that just because the GoI failed to use its machinery to collect and verify data on migrant worker deaths and distress, it can get away with evading the question on the floor of the house.
SWAN started a helpline to address the needs of stranded migrant workers since the lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020. SWAN coordinated relief efforts such as arranging for rations, transferring money directly to the workers’ accounts through crowdsourced funds and assisting in travel back home from places where they were stranded. In the process, SWAN documented the distress induced by severe food insecurity and cash availability and woefully inadequate government and judicial response to the crisis.
Three reports, first on April 15, second on May 1 and the third on June 8, to this end were released addressing the changing nature of distress through the lockdown. Between March 26, 2020, and July 3, 2020, SWAN co-ordinated relief work for more than 36,000 migrant workers and transferred more than Rs 60 lakhs directly to the workers’ accounts.
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