Migrant Workers and Government’s Outlook

First Published: 01.05.2020

Migrant Workers headed for their villages
Migrant Workers headed for their villages

Jamlo Makdam could not make it. She had to travel another 50 km. She decided to walk 100 km through the wild, avoiding the highway route fearing that she might be caught by the police. She wanted to reach her home in a village near Bijapur in Chhattisgarh from Telangana. But just 50 km away from her destination, the poor girl of 12 years and a child labor, succumbed to death. Post mortem was done as usual. The administration reported that the death was due to dehydration. Working hard for some pittance in the mirch-field of Telangana ended for good.

Jamlo Makdam, Ranbir Singh, Bala Logesh , Insaf Ali and many more died due to fatigue during the long walk home.

Nor could Ranbir Singh. While working at a restaurant, he was caught off guard by lock-down imposed at midnight on 24th March. Desperate, Ranbir started out on foot to reach his village 325 km away in Madhya Pradesh. Even traversed 200 km but he died on the way. The post mortem said that he died of a cardiac arrest.

Equally unfortunate were Bala Logesh, Insaf Ali and many more of the migrants. They took up the impossible feat of covering 500 km to 1500 km on foot just to reach their homes. Lack of water, extreme exhaustion, unavailability of food and simply the road accidents multiplied the number of deaths. Deaths were 200 till 13th April – but their deaths didn’t matter – perhaps the counting stopped. These numbers just got buried under the hot discussions on the rate of deaths due to the Corona virus.

Perhaps, they had to die. They were seen carrying loads on their heads, tumbling with tiredness, men and women in filthy rags with their children some even pregnant. It was all over the TV channels and newspapers for over 10 days – bringing back the horrors of partition over and again. They were criticized and condemned on TV channels for gathering in large numbers in Delhi bus stand, Bandra in Mumbai or on the roads of Surat, defying both the lock-down and social distancing.

“How reckless and senseless of them! Why wasn’t the government looking into it? What’s the police doing?” and many more such questions were asked and reiterated by the well-dressed hosts and hostesses of TV channels. Numerous viewers of metros and suburban areas wholeheartedly agreed with them. Some of them were even shocked. Volunteers of parliamentary political parties aided by the rich rushed by cars to supply food packets or water bottles to these workers.

Insensitive reporting by National media

We know it because we saw it on TV, but very soon it slipped out of the head of the rich. Again, they were busy thinking about how to keep themselves safe from the Covid-19. They rubbed hand with sanitizers repeatedly, covered their faces with masks and brood deeply to keep themselves safe from the fatal disease. If the long-march of these ‘hapless’ masses were not beamed in the TV channels, scores of the rich could not even know that there were millions of working people in the country who, hungry and starved, could make such desperate attempts to cross miles after mile with ‘animal spirit’!

Who are the Migratory Workers

Tens and thousands of these people are officially referred to as “migratory workers” by the government. Millions of such people travel from their native underdeveloped provinces to comparatively developed provinces, from less prosperous to more prosperous districts in search of livelihood. If the snobbish veil of the rich is shrugged off, these people can be seen in the national capital region of Delhi, in the lustrous and scintillating industrial region of Haryana (Manesar-Gurgaon), in the slums beside numerous industries in Maharashtra and Gujarat, in the suburban regions of Chennai, in the ghettos beside the high-rises of Bangalore’s, as contract casual labors in the Jute Mills in Kolkata and its suburbs, and as agricultural laborers in the farms of Punjab and Haryana or as construction workers of roads, multi-storeyed buildings, shopping complex, five-star hotels, hospitals or as hawkers in small towns or big cities – in innumerable Kirana stores.

They are available as rickshaw-pullers, drivers of van, auto-rickshaw and taxi, buses, or as bus conductors, porters, electricians, plumbers, maids, sweepers, scavengers, washer men, ironing clothes for Babus and in numerous low profile jobs. They used to live beside well-off rich city dwellers, earned living by doing odd jobs for the rich. They make cars for Maruti-Honda, stich fashionable apparel in the garment factories of Tirupati-Chennai-Delhi-Bangalore, works for mining of minerals used in making nail polish, lipstick, mascara or jewellery, or they are employed in numerous brick kilns, coal mines, power generating utilities and do thousands of kinds of jobs.

According to the census report of 2011, the number of migrant workers in India is about 13 crores 90 lakhs (Source 1) and the number rises to 15 crores (approximately) in 2020. Year after year they work as daily wagers, or toils as temporary labourers. The nature of work they get is very irregular and seasonal. They work for hardly 15-20 days in a month. Most of them are referred to as informal labors in government records. Some of them are regular and/or formal labors. But there is no written agreement between management and 64.9% formal laborers, 67.8% contract laborers and 95.3% casual workers of the country. (Source 2).

Work condition of Migratory workers

Majority of migratory workers do not have any job security, nor do they enjoy facilities like provident fund, gratuity, health insurance or pension. The condition of their workplace is even worse than the primitive inhuman working condition prevalent in Dickensian England. As per law, the duration of work is eight hours but the actual working hours of these contractual/casual workers or even regular workers extends with the rise in order. Work is mandatory. In most of the cases, there is no extra wage for ‘overtime’. There are instances of thirty-six hours’ continuous work in garment manufacturing industries. In some of the factories, the workers do not even get a break for going to the toilet. In a lot of places, the workers drink less water to avoid any call of nature. The workers have to work in factories with tremendous speed, their lunchtime is very limited. Frequently their fingers get cut when they are unable to keep pace with the speed of the machine. The work-conditions reminds us of the film “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin.

The work-conditions reminds us of the film “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin.
The work-conditions reminds us of the film “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin.

Their dwelling places are huts/slums/ghettos near factories. They are forced to pack themselves with ten to twelve persons in a single room. When everyone is in a hurry in the morning, they are compelled to wait in queue behind twenty persons for using a public toilet. There is no scope for a comfortable bath with soap. They have to take their breakfast with break-neck hurry. They earn a meager wage monthly or weekly. Hardly can they save anything after paying for food, lodging, electricity, conveyance charges and after sending money to their native homes. 57% of city workers earn less than Rs.10000 in a month; 60% of casual workers not even earn Rs. 5000 in a month; 84.3% casual laborers even less than Rs. 7500 monthly. (Source 3) Being very much vulnerable to malnutrition and semi-starvation – they are the first prey of any kind of contagious disease. In India, every year around two lakh people die of malaria, most of them are people from poor working people. (Source 4). Every day around 1200 people die of tuberculosis. (Source 5) Besides, there are other killers like cholera, typhoid, dengue etc. Diseases and death have become part and parcel of their lives.

In a nutshell, they form a segment of millions of migrant workers. They are the proletariat of India. Their economic and social status is far below the rich, affluent Bhadroloks, and the capitalists. They are living like subhuman creatures in the nooks and corners of urban and suburban areas to make both ends meet. They are compelled to live in dirty, filthy and stinky places. Better we should say that they have been forced to live in this way in the interest of the capitalists because the cosy and comfortable lives of the rich, the palaces, high-rise buildings are built by extracting the labor-power of these workers. The capitalists offer such a small amount of wages for their labor-power that they can just marginally afford for the basic food, a tiny shelter for dwelling, very ordinary clothes to cover the body, to meet medical expenses and to send their children to schools. Lesser wages and facilities for the workers generate more profit and wealth for the capitalists. All the pomp and show of capitalists and the aristocrats are built on the toil and blood of these workers. The leaders/ministers/bureaucrats of central and state governments are completely devoted to safeguarding the interests of this creamy layer of the society.

The knee-jerk declaration of lock-down

Therefore, when the lock-down was declared at a notice of only four hours, nobody bothered to think about these hundreds and thousands of laborers living at the bottom-line of social structure. What is the use of bothering about such people who are extremely vulnerable to overwork, malnutrition, starvation, disease and death? What would happen to the daily wagers during the lock-down, would they live, what would they eat, how would they go back in case they want to return home – the class interest of the rulers does not allow think for that uneasy questions. Therefore, the major question before us is whether the death of these desperate workers should be clinically termed as dehydration or cardiac arrest or it should be better referred to as killings by the state.

Nevertheless, there was a full indication that the corona virus was knocking at the door. First corona case was detected in India on 30th January. By that time the epidemic spread in China and gradually its claws became evident in Europe. But the rulers of this country were busy in doing something ‘more important’ like how to utilize communal venom for winning election in Delhi, how to start a riot after losing the election, how to welcome US President Donald Trump to buy armaments of $300 crore (Source 6), how to control arrogant protesters of Shaheenbag and how to proclaim power in Madhya Pradesh by means of horse-trading, etc. What will happen to the millions of migrant workers in case they get infected by the virus, how will the poor get treatment in the prevailing chaotic state of government health services – the rulers didn’t bother to think of that. Even the World Health Organization said that few bothered to listen to them when they rang the alarm bell at the end of January. (Source 7)

The Government was playing cards to capture Madhya Pradesh government when WHO declared the PANDEMIC on 11th March 2020.

The Government was playing cards to capture Madhya Pradesh government when WHO declared the PANDEMIC on 11th March 2020. They were even blind to the fact that the wards of the rich should be sent for quarantine when they return from foreign countries The most important need of that hour was speedy removal of the migrant workers from their workplaces to their native homes by special trains, arrangement for food and treatment of one-quarter of the population living far below the poverty line, compel the owners/entrepreneurs pay wage/salary and other dues to the workers during the lockdown, rearrange the hospitals and other health services to fight the pandemic, stock enough test kits, masks, PPEs, sanitizer, etc. However, ‘God was not sleeping’ but busy in other jobs. Therefore, when the lock-down was implanted with an alarm of just four hours, it became quite evident that only the rich and wealthy class would be able to meet their needs from their savings and bank balance.

About Indian Healthcare

Poor laborers who live at the bottom-line of class-divided society are mostly affected by natural calamities like drought, flood, cyclone, earthquake, epidemic etc. This is the rule of class-divided society. Kuchha houses of the poor people are demolished, their crops get destroyed. They are more susceptible to famines and first prey of death. Ultra-limited public health services and private investments in health sector make the poor people at the bottom-line of the society most vulnerable to natural disasters. There was no health insurance for 85% people of rural India and 81% people of urban India in 2017-18. (Source 8)

There is 30% dearth of primary health centers in rural India. About 60% of the health centers run with only one doctor and 5% of the health centers do not have any doctor at all. (Source 9) The number of beds in the Govt. hospitals is also far below the requirement – only 0.7 per 1000 population. But it is 13.4 in Japan, 10.3 in South Korea, 8.2 in Germany, 3.8 in China, even it 1.7 in Iran. (Source 10) Only about 5-8% of the total number of beds in the hospitals of India have ICU facility. (Source: 11) The number of doctors in India per 1000 person is 0.8, whereas it is 4.2 in Germany, 4.1 in Spain and Italy, 3.2 in France, 2.6 in the USA, 1.8 in China and 1.1 in Iran. (Source 12) Per capita per annum, health expenditure in India was Rs. 1,112 in 2018, that means it was Rs.3.40 per day. (Source 13)

What an irony! Actually, proper treatment is a far cry of the poor working people not only for corona but from tuberculosis to cancer, cardiac disorder, kidney failure, malaria, typhoid – the list is endless. Therefore, it is clearly evident who would be the most vulnerable to the pandemic, who will die like non-human animals or become bankrupt.

The attitude of the government to the home-coming migrant workers is deadly. Police are utterly high-handed in most cases. They beat and humiliate workers under any pretext. They have sprinkled germicides in Bareilly in the state of Uttar Pradesh assuming that the workers are some non-human creatures! Foods and waters are thrown to the workers under quarantine in Agra. In a survey done by ‘Stranded Workers Action Network’ in 27th March show that 50 per cent of the workers confined in various camps have only one day’s food. 96 per cent of the workers said that they do not get any ration from the government. 74 per cent of the workers said that they have only half of the wages they get. They do not know what they eat during the 21-day’s lock-down period. 89 per cent of the surveyed workers confirmed that the owners do not give them any wages for the lock-down period. (Source 14)

Even the Supreme Court has refused to direct the government to take responsibility of the workers. According to the court, if the workers are fed, what is the necessity to give them monetary support! Workers of most of the jute mills in West Bengal are not paid. A business paper of the capitalists wrote that in 70-80 per cent industries about 100-120 millions of workers are not paid their due wages. (Source 15) Even the Government of India freezes dearness allowances (DA) of is employees. The government of Kerala declared that they will cut six day’s salary in the next five months. Even the Parliamentary Committee on Labor said recently that “in case of natural calamities, payment of wages … may be unjustifiable.” (Source 16) CMIE records that at the end of the month of April 140 million workers have lost jobs. (Source 17) In the meantime the three governments, such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan make blue-prints to change 8-hour working day into 12 hours. Therefore, it is very clear that the corona pandemic is a suitable mean for the capitalists to suppress the workers with class-aggression.

Government aid, or just a joke

The central government has declared an aid of Rs 1.70 lakh crore for the poor workers. The news media is writing a lot about whether this aid is really sufficient or the new schemes declared are simply makeover of the existing ones. It is useless to repeat those here (e.g. Government’s promise to pay Rs. 500 monthly to poor families for three months. It means Rs.16.66 per family daily or less than Rs.4 per head. (Source 18) Government charity indeed!). Anybody can understand that this money would not reach the hands of the poor after crossing huge corruption, bureaucratic red tapes and the claws of the local leaders. In reality, we have seen lots of agitation of hungry workers demanding food and ration. The total quantity of food grains stored in FCI exceeds three times than the minimum standard requirement. (Source 19) But there is no proper provision for disbursing it to the poor working people. And such an arrangement for the poor never existed. National Health Survey of 2017 reported that more than nineteen crores suffer malnutrition, at least 7000 people die of starvation daily, 25 lakhs yearly. Moreover, 4500 children daily pass away fighting hunger and starvation – three lakhs yearly. (Source 20)

Government aid translates to Rs.16.66 per family daily or less than Rs.4 per head.

Everyone knows that malnourished people get infected faster therefore it is not difficult to assume who would be the first prey of corona. Significantly, according to WHO around 40 per cent food grains perish in this country every year due to lack of proper maintenance. (Ibid) This the condition of nearly half of the poor working people of our country! Therefore, it is not very difficult to assume the condition of the migrant workers caged in various camps. Haryana government has made the shelter of migrant workers almost like a prison. (Source 21) Indian Express reports about a camp of migrant workers in Delhi:

“Fans not working and no power back-up; sanitation of toilets rarely done; most migrants want to leave as their families cannot survive; rude behavior of civil defense staff; food quality not good; no hand-wash and sanitizer; foul smell in toilets; water supply in the toilets only between 7 am and 11 am; one soap for bathing and no detergent for washing clothes; mosquito bites.” (28.04.20)

But what more could be allocated for the subhuman creatures? Even after one month of the announcement of the lock-down the government has not adopted any effective measure for sending the migrant workers to their native places. Although the government has arranged an AC bus for the homecoming of the stranded pilgrims. Now the government is very active for return of the wards of the wealthy families who went to Kota in Rajasthan for pre-entrance coaching for higher studies, of course, we should be aware of the “social class”.

The final word

But how did a pandemic like Corona spread in India? It was originated at Wuhan in China. The origin of this disease is, of course, a very important part of the discussion that we will cover in the fourth part of this article. But it is a very relevant question, how this disease spreads in the whole world, especially in China. The colonialists, their soldiers, merchants migrated from one country to another that carried plague, smallpox, yellow fever, swine flu, syphilis pathogens in the past. In the ages of capitalist globalization, there is continuous to and fro movement of wealthy people, rich merchants, international tourists, people studying and employed abroad and they carry virus and bacteria with them. Therefore, we can say that epidemic and pandemic is inevitable in globalized capitalism. The same happened in India. The central cabinet secretary has informed that around 15 lakh people have traveled to India from abroad by air between 18th January and 23rd March. (Source 22)

This huge number of people – foreign tourists included among them – have roamed around in this country without any restrictions, used public transport, dined at restaurants, shopped at malls, watched movies at multiplexes. As a result, people of this country, especially those who are related to the service sector easily came in close contact with the people carrying this virus. It is not surprising that the readiness the government has shown in purifying the ‘dirty’ migratory laborers by spraying germicide over them (as if those laborers are carriers of all diseases) a small fraction of that willingness was not shown in case of wealthy people or their offspring who returned from foreign countries. Now the leaders, ministers are shielding the misdeeds of capitalist society by imposing the responsibility of the pandemic on the shoulders of a particular community or like Trump pointing an accusing finger towards China to cover-up the real face of capitalism.

In a nutshell, the way ministers of central and state government protect the interest of the capitalist class through their activities, they are now protecting the same class, in the same way even during the pandemic. So the influx of Corona virus may otherwise be termed as the offense of capitalism on the poor workers including the migrant workers. Although nothing different could be expected from this class-divided society.

Update Study Group


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Tags : BJP Government Capitalism Covid-19 Migratory workers