The poorest pays: Has India been fair to the poor during a pandemic?

“We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm. Some of us are on superyachts, some of us have just the one oar.”

Damian Barr

The central government on May 4th launched a special train service with the aim of repatriating stranded people to return to their home states. The special train service is operating under the name of the “Shramik Express Service”.

The railway service aims at transporting about 5 lakh passengers in about 500 trains during a period of 15 days, the majority of people stranded are poor daily wage migrants.

The guidelines, as released by the railway ministry, indicates that sending states are required to screen passengers and ensure that they fulfil these two important criteria

  1. They are indeed stranded; and
  2. They are asymptomatic for Covid-19

The other guidelines released by the railway ministry which has raised several debates is about the ticketing. To avail a ticket the railways decided to charge each passenger between Rs. 50- 850/- However, instead of collecting the money through the central counters, the railways had tasked the sending states to collect money and give it to the ministry of railways.

The question was raised by various states regarding the charging of fare from the migrants saying that the centre should ideally run the trains free of any charge as charging even half the price is an act of commercialising from the tears of the poor. Also, if the money has to be charged at all, it should be collected through the normal procedure laid down by the Railways.

The issue of ticketing again gave rise to politics at the cost of the labour as states adopted various arrangements to pay the centre as the Railway Ministry refused to move from its decision.

Some states collected fares from the passengers while some paid-on behalf of the migrants. The states that paid to the migrants assured themselves that they will be reimbursed by the home state of the migrants.

The issue raised its momentum and a PIL was filed by Jagdeep Chhokar and Gaurav Jain in the Supreme Court, seeking the reduction of railway fare from the migrant workers even if it was merely 15%. But the bench of justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and BR Gavai, which heard the matter, declined to intervene with steps taken by the Centre and state governments to provide relief and transport to stranded migrant workers and disposed off the public interest litigation, quoting  “Insofar as charging of 15% of railway ticket amount from workers, it is not for this Court to issue any order regarding the same, it is the concerned state/Railways to take necessary steps under the relevant guidelines,”

Since the announcement of the lockdown on 24th March 2020, the most affected have been the labour class of the country. Migrants, being uncertain of the future, were left disappointed and helpless with no option left but to take the journey home barefoot.

Since then, no day has gone where these workers have not lost their lives and social media is filled with horrifying images of the migrants suffering. According to the media reports, since the nationwide lockdown, approximately 20 migrant workers have died each day while taking these thousands of kilometres of journey on foot in the scorching heat with limited resources to cover up the journey to their homes.

The government at the Union and state level has promised support to the labourers, as was announced by the Finance Minister that Rs 1.7 lakh crores relief fund along with extra 5kg food grains per person under the Garib Kalyan Ann Yojna, the same has been extended to those without ration card also, however, the ration includes 5kg gains + 1kg chana( per family) for two months which inadequate to survive at such times of crisis with no income and jobs to support their livelihood.

Even after the great step by the Modi-Govt, in the form of the Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, the Finance minister on the day 2 of the announcement mentioned some schemes which, to be noted, were very well-pre-existing; the first step announced – one ration one nation, projected as a novel scheme was actually announced in August 2019 by PDS minister Ram Vilas Paswan and was due to be completed in June 2020 whereas states like Delhi have complained of the incompetence of the PDS shops and the practice of black marketing of the ration that was supposedly for the poor.

At any given event, 90% of India’s workforce is utilized in the casual area. As per the International Labour Organization, the daily wagers are left with nothing more than Rs. 100 and 78% of them have not been paid since the lockdown. The absence of any government assistance for casual workers in urban regions echoes the results of formalization on paper — while ranchers get money transfers, and workers in provincial regions have MGNREGA, there are not really any plans for casual labourers in urban zones

The government has time and again made bold claims about helping the migrants to reach back their homes but one of the biggest mournful incident during the lockdown was the 8th May 2020 railway track tragedy where 16 migrants were crushed to death after being run over by a freight train in Aurangabad, as the migrants were on a 150 km long barefoot journey in order to board the Shramik express which is available to board only at selected main railway stations, this has been the biggest concern at this time, with the public transport being suspended throughout the nation, who are these labourers to board the special trains announced by the government. The latest incident of the stranded labourers happened at 3 am on the 16th May 2020 where 24 migrants fall to death as they sat on the sack of good in a truck and died due to the impact of the collision.

Even after the ration and train schemes, why is there still a large group of workers who have to take up the journey to their homes in such dejected conditions, what has led to the desperation of these workers to take up road journeys. Are the deaths of these workers accidents or murder due to the negligence of the government? Why has the government not acknowledged the reason behind these walks of death taken by the migrant workers on a daily basis?

LEGAL PARLANCE

The miserable situation of the migrants at the present day is not a new concern but a drive back to the inutility of laws like The Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979, the said law is one of the most disgracefully actualized laws in the nation.

The act has a particular arrangement for the registration of labourers by their employers in their home and working states. It also provides for the travel allowance of the worker as per the 1979 mandate [1], the poor implementation of such provisions have worsened the situation of the migrant workers. There is a lack of information that the government has on the migrant workers and their families. As in response to an RTI query, the office of the Chief Labour Commissioner under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment claimed it does not have state-wise and district-wise data despite the CLC directing the regional heads based in 20 centres across the country to enumerate every migrant worker stranded due to the lockdown within three days during the second week of April 2020,[2] showcase the incompetence of the government.

Prof K.R. Shyam Sundar, a faculty member of labour studies at Xavier School of Management in Jamshedpur said: “had the registration been done by the home states and the host states sincerely, the database of labour contractors and migrant workers would have been available with the states now, the entire issue of which state should bear the travel cost even would not have arisen given the extraordinary circumstances like the Covid-19 pandemic, which has effectively terminated the employment contracts of these workers.”[3]

The information would have helped in arriving at alleviation and help to the poor who had to walk miles or hang tight for trains and would have solved a great part of the distress brought about by their hapless and frantic conditions. However, presently, the Centre’s Occupational Safety, Health and Working Condition Code Bill, which is pendent in Parliament, which tries to include 13 existing laws, including the 1979 principle is silent on the need of registration of the migrant workers.

The “blind disconnect” between the centre and the state government to the straits of the migrant labourers is so evident that it took about more than 50 days and a 4th phase of the lockdown to finally acknowledge the crisis of the migrant workers, and when they did so it is nothing else but clearly, a game of politics between the centre and state government, as the new guidelines of the Shramik express increased the capacity of each train from 1200-1700, decreasing the  most important aspect that is the social distancing,

The least that was asked from the government was to provided food and water to the migrant workers who are walking miles on foot just to reach their homes, a petition for the same was put forward to the supreme court, to which the Hon’ble court replied “it is impossible for the court to identity who is walking and who is not and to provide them with food and water, it is for the state to decide”

This brings us to some big question on the humanitarian grounds- Are the lives of the poor nothing more than an agenda for politics? Why has there been a crooked implementation of labour laws?

If the desperation the workers is restricted to mere inhabitation facility why did the government not transform the vacant grounds, marriage halls, govt. buildings into shelter homes as the luxurious hotels were transformed into quarantine centres for the NRI’s return back to India.

[1] Section 15, The Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979

[2] Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/health/covid-19-lockdown-50-of-stranded-migrant-labourers-have-less-than-rs-100-97-didnt-get-cash-transfer-from-govt-finds-report-8359701.html

[3] Available at: https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/coronavirus-lockdown-neglected-migrant-shield-now-set-for-axe/cid/1770958


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Almas Fatima

Screenshot_20200519-134727_Gallery

Almas Fatima is a final-year law student of Jamia Millia Islamia University. She has a keen interest in labour and company laws. She wishes to be a litigator in the future.

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