The nationwide lockdown announced without much notice has left the migrant labour in the lurch — away from home, no work and no cash. While the economic crisis faced by the migrants has been highlighted by activists and the media, not much attention was paid to the psychological effect the lockdown had on them.
“I want to see my family and my children; I don’t want to work here, I don’t want food or money; I just want to go back and be with my family,” these were the common refrains that resonated in many interviews that fleeing migrants gave to multiple TV channels. Thus, there is a need to develop a deep understanding of the phenomenon of fleeing labourers.
The willingness to walk several hundred miles, refusal to stay in camps, and the rush to board the first train available indicate the unfair treatment they were subjected to during the lockdown. Now the Karnataka government has decided to cancel the trains for migrant workers, forcing them to stay put in Bangalore and other cities. Not allowing workers to go home is like treating them like bonded labour. The Supreme Court had, in 1984, given unambiguous directions on work as human right and that any contract that curbs it will be treated as bonded labour.
Yes, they want to go home, check their family, provide for them and come back when they are sure that lockdown will not be extended again. There will be an additional disruption of two to three months because of this. But one must understand that the psychological stress due to the inhuman treatment will have a lasting impact on them. Running of trains right from the first week of the lockdown would have reassured them to come back to work after the lockdown. The government and the employers need to treat the labourers with empathy, with a full understanding of their emotional needs. Stopping them from going home is tantamount to violating their basic human rights.
This is also a time for employers to use CSR funds to ensure the contract labourers have some cash in hand. They should also subscribe to the schemes managed by LIC to ensure that they also have the benefit of some old-age pension. There are 9 million inter-state migrant workers in the country who travel back to their home state every year, according to the Economic Survey, 2017. The government does not have an updated data on migration to analyse patterns and types of migration. Because of this, there is no clarity on the number of migrants who travel between states for employment in different sectors of the economy.
The crisis highlights the need to have a common database to ensure that no one is left behind. The government must use the current crisis as an opportunity to create a database of migrant labourers that gets updated every year.
(Dr Aruna Sharma is a Delhi-based development economist and a former civil servant. She retired as secretary, ministry of steel, government of India in 2018.)