COVID-19 Exposes Migrant Workers Reality in India!

It has been a fact of modern developing India that nearly 90% of its workforce is engaged in the unorganized sector, and that this fact has been dealt with so far only academically or for research oriented purpose. Most of the unorganized workers are daily wagers with no commitment by the employers to provide work on a continued basis and even those with monthly salaries have no job security or agreements. A sizable chunk of this workforce constitutes the migrant workers who go to other states in search of livelihoods. All the major cities of India have hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers engaged in all kinds of activities from construction work to plying cycle rickshaws. Some of them are able to rent accommodation while some others live on the pavement tenements, slums and even on roads and bridges.

It is preposterous to imagine that a problem of such immense proportions was not anticipated by the government of India while imposing the Lockdown from 24th March, 2020. If fact, it is perhaps due to the ‘immense proportion’ statistics that the government considered it practically or logistically impossible to manage. They also might have thought that making elaborate preparations to tackle the issue could very well defeat the purpose of lockdown or delay it ominously. Besides, the main focus that time was ‘save lives’ by preventing the possible exponential spread of the novel Coronavirus, and so, the government wanted everyone stay home or to stay on wherever they were. The most desired ‘stay home’ mission got derailed immediately, because the moment lockdown was imposed all the employers dismissed the workers without even paying due wages or salaries, and asked them to leave. Suddenly, millions of migrant workers found themselves workless and penniless, and those who were in rented accommodation could no longer afford to stay on. They found themselves shelter less too, and the desperation to go to their home states grew and grew.

Of course, the concerned state governments, NGOs, religious institutions and others jumped into the humanitarian fray and claimed or even bragged about giving shelter and food to all with the slogan ‘no one will go hungry’. However, as we mentioned earlier, achieving a mammoth job such as this, involving millions, was practically or logically impossible. The migrant workers protested in large numbers complaining of ‘no work-no shelter-no food-no money’ almost in all the cities; they thought they would surely die of hunger if not by COVID infection and wanted to go home at any cost. The government did boast of controlling the spread of the virus effectively,

and slowly brought in the issue of ‘livelihood’ in the later versions of the lockdown; however, they still did not do anything to reduce the sufferings of the floating distressed millions. And the migrant workers started walking hundreds of miles home-some dying on the way of exhaustion while some others getting mowed down by cars, trucks and goods trains; some of them who could afford to spend a few bucks tried for rides on trucks or tempos or any mode of transport at least for some parts of the journeys, with some of them still not spared by tragic accidents.

Finally during Lockdown 3.0 the government of India started providing trains for the workers-with no social distancing maintained, but only to clear the huge unmanageable loads of humanity. Running of hundreds of trains with various state governments arranging buses has not still achieved the goal, and workers continue to walk home. At the moment, scores of such helpless humans are getting killed in accidents daily. Shivers run down your spine when you imagine the inhuman scenario; hundreds of workers-men, women and children-carrying head-loads of luggage walking on the highways in scorching heat with no or little stock of water or food; trying to rest their tired bodies on the concrete-rough of the roads at night only to resume in the morning. And the parallel scenario: other vehicles-SUVs, media vans, goods carriers and the like-kept on passing them; media interviewing them, police checkpoints and inter-state border authorities monitoring or allowing them; but nobody helped them or even tried to reduce their agony a bit.

Yes, you are asked to stay home and stay safe, and some of us somehow can afford it. But the luckless migrant workers struggle to reach home with many of them never ever reaching- getting killed just few kilometers away from their sweet homes. Stay home irony! This staggering Indian reality hits you hard, very hard indeed, and you have no one to bank upon to tackle this problem. The decades-old reality has come to the fore now, COVID-10 makes it impossible to avoid it any further. However, in India money is always power: power to influence or lobby or to pressurize, and since this vast mass of humanity has no money power it is still uncertain if the authorities would finally try all means handling this issue, if at all. After all the sufferings and misery, some money is being allocated now for their welfare. Irony again!

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