On 24th March, 2020, when the entire nation was put under a lockdown, it became abundantly clear that the nature of the pandemic was far more grave than us Indians had perceived it to be. The entire population struggled to adapt to these changing circumstances, and surviving didn’t seem like a cakewalk anymore. People struggled because they were forced to stay inside, within the safety of their homes. This lockdown highlighted the plight of the migrant labours in India, and our nation suddenly became aware of the difficult circumstances emerged for them with the outbreak of the COVID-19.
Pandemics of this scale are feared across the world because they are primarily a challenge to the healthcare; however, in India, it was successful in exposing a different problem altogether- the condition of the Labour force across the country. We were hit by a haphazard wave of ‘reverse migration’, and millions of labours were seen moving across the country. If we go by the Census 2011, the total number of internal migrants is 450 million, and the practical numbers are way above that. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source of these migrants, their destinations primarily being Delhi and Maharashtra. This vast number adds up because the migrant labour force ranges from construction site workers, to maids, watchmen, road-side businesses and industrial workers. These workers began their journey back home, on foot, when it was made clear that they could no longer earn via their regular means. To them, it meant that they had to go back their villages, and that included everyone in their family, pregnant women, infants and children. They did not have the privilege to stay locked within the safety of their homes, for they had none. These workers were stranded on the roads, with little to no resources at their expense. While they were offered meals or shelter by different NGOs, Policemen, civilians, it was hardly sufficient for their sustenance. The atrocities they were subjected to has revealed that the condition of these workers is so far the worst result of this pandemic, people are dying of hunger, heat, lack of medical care, accidents and exhaustion. A 12 year old died of exhaustion from walking, a few kilometers before she reached her village, and this does not even begin to describe how these thousands of families have suffered.
The question was, were the existing laws inadequate to protect the civilian rights of these workers? However, that was not the case; we have a statute that goes by the name of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. It was the failure to implement these regulations that led us to our current situation. It is one thing to have a legislation, and another to successfully bring it forth. If we do a brief analysis of this Act, we will realize that it might have been successful, had it been put into effect. These circumstances have led us to witness what was not only the failure of our legal system, but that of our society as a whole. Under this Act, the contractors who lure these workers to move to metropolitan areas for a ‘better’ livelihood are to obtain a license from both the states (home state and host state), and the establishment hiring them would have to do the same. This license would also contain conditions on how the inter-state migrant will be recruited, the remuneration payable, hours of work, fixation of wages and other essential amenities. Further, these workers are also entitled to a displacement allowance, adequate residence and medical facilities. These workplaces would be inspected by government-appointed inspectors from time to time, who will ensure that the conditions pertaining to the Act are met. The penalties to be imposed on non-compliance of this Act are fairly stringent, and go as far as imprisonment. Unfortunately, when it comes to the practical application, let alone the implementation or awareness, these workers dare not raise their voice against their employers or contractors, for it will not cost them their employment in addition to their wages. They are led to believe that they do not possess any rights of their own, and are at the stake of their employers. To integrate the existing labour laws, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 was introduced in July 2019. It aimed to strengthen migrant labour rights. Towards the end of 2019, the state governments and the labour ministry unanimously agreed that an exclusive chapter on migrant workers be introduced in the Code. Taking the laws relating to migrant workers adopted by Odisha, it was suggested that initiatives such as a helpline and a Migrant Labour Help Desk, support centers be set up. It was expected that this Act would improve the working and living conditions of these workers manifold. However, like many other measures, this Statute only existed in principle, there was no practical application to be found. There was more that could have been done to better implement these laws, had we been paying more attention. For starters, a better access to healthcare system must be ensured for these workers and safe and hygienic spaces for living. The universalization of the Public Distribution System, better safety for women and the freedom to live within their community. In addition, merely passing a legislation is not the solution, the people whose lives such legislations aim to improve must be made aware about them too. If we were to look for people whose acts have led us to where we stand today, what options do we have? Clearly, we cannot the blame the Pandemic itself for bringing forth the issues that were well-rooted and behind a pretense. For these workers, this Pandemic took away their livelihood, but for the rest of us, it only removed the curtain that was draped over a pre-existing humanitarian crisis.
It seems fairly insensitive that as a society, we address every issue so outwardly on social media, yet, these victims have barely any access to food, let alone technology or social media platforms. The workers do not have faith in the system, and rightly so. While we were worried about the novel Coronavirus, these workers were stranded on the roads, pregnant women, children, bar none. In addition to their existing conditions and the plague of worries about their future, they were subjected to disdain from those who were privileged enough to criticize them for trying to save their families and get to their homes. Some of the civilians did step up and did their due part to help them in whatever manner they deemed feasible, but make no mistake, it was hardly sufficient, women gave birth to babies on the roads, people died of starvation, and our charity could not help them. The pandemic not only took away what meagre livelihood they possessed, it stripped them of their dignity. The present situation just brought to fore our moral compasses, and they do not seem to be pointing in the correct direction. A few months down the line, when whatever little savings they hold are exhausted, they will be forced to move back to the cities that subjected them to this nightmare. Tomorrow, while the world will be adjusting to the new normal, they will go back to what they are running from today. The concepts of equality, fair treatment and such may sound utopian to us, but what they will be expecting from us are mere shreds of humanity and respect, and when all is said, we can only hope that what we deliver to them is not charity, but their due share.
This article is authored by Ananya Shukla, a second year student at Chanakya National Law University.
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