According to the 2011 Census of India, there are about 13.9 crore internal inter- and intra-state migrants in the country. Most of them are involved in the unorganised sector, with a very low standard of living in the city they have migrated to (Sharma, 2020). As a result, when the government announced a total lockdown, it meant that economic activities could not be carried out. Thus, crores of migrant workers were stuck in cities hundreds of kilometres away from their homes which are mainly in villages.
Of the two choices that the migrant workers had when the first phase of the lockdown was announced on 24th March 2020 (to go back home or stay put), although a lot of them decided to go back to their homes, a considerable number of them decided to stay where they were. Among the many reasons that they gave for not going back included lack of money to pay for travel, the unanticipated and continuous extension of the lockdown, fear of unemployment in rural areas, and the hope of resumption of work (Bailwal and Sah, 2020). While the event of hordes of migrant workers returning to their homes via foot, train, or any means of transport available made headlines, little was talked about these migrant workers who chose not to go back.
As mentioned earlier, most of these migrant workers are employed in the unorganised sector of the economy. Due to this, a lot of them are employed by labour contractors, and not directly by the people who actually need them. Moreover, their wages are calculated on a daily basis, with payment usually being made to them at the end of a week, two weeks, or a month. Since they are paid according to the work they do, the lockdown and subsequent paralysis of economic activities meant that the employers/contractors would not pay them because no work was actually done. Therefore, a lot of the migrant workers stayed back so that they could ensure that they received wages for the three months that they did not work unwillingly (Bailwal and Sah, 2020).
Till the time the government did not start the Shramik Special Trains for those migrant workers who wished to go back home, they had to rely on private transport providers, who were charging more than what they could afford. Like the story of Masoom Ansari (as reported by Huffington Post India), who was living rent-free in Ahmedabad since the announcement of the lockdown but was not paid for that duration. His only option to go back to his village in Jharkhand was a private bus which was charging him Rs 6,000 – half of what he normally earns in a month. As a result, he was forced to stay in Ahmedabad, and with cooking supplies running out, he had to eat half-cooked food (Khaira, 2020).
Amidst the decision of those deciding to stay back despite economic hardships, came the welcome news of some landlords forgiving rent to these migrant workers for the period of the lockdown since they understood that they neither had the means to pay rent nor did they have the means to evacuate and go elsewhere. In Delhi, the government issued an order on 22nd April 2020, wherein landlords were not allowed to take rent from migrant workers and students living in the city. Migrant workers who were forced to pay rent by their landlord could lodge a complaint on the police helpline number 100 (Dey, 2020). However, this respite did not mean the end of the hardships that the migrant workers who stayed back faced. They still faced the problem of lack of food and along with it the lack of facilities to cook the little food they could find.
For the initial few weeks of the lockdown, the government had not announced any food ration scheme and the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme has also not been implemented yet. This means that a migrant worker whose ration card is registered in his hometown in say Uttar Pradesh, cannot avail the benefits of it if he is living and working in a city in Maharashtra. And the fear of being beaten up by the police even if they step out to buy food, made them run out of food and go hungry (Lalwani and Chakravarty, 2020).
By May 2020, several states had decided to resume economic activities in a controlled manner. This led to a few states making harsh decisions for those migrant workers who actually wanted to go home. Like in Bengaluru, when the Karnataka government stopped the Shramik Special Trains briefly and instead forced the migrant workers to stay. Any migrant worker trying to board a train at the city’s railway station was met with police violence, forcing them to either go back to their residential arrangement in the city or begin an arduous journey back to their respective homes on foot (the only option they were left with if they wished to go back home). It was alleged that this was done by the government so that companies could fulfil their labour requirements. Real estate companies argued that they needed these migrant workers on the thousands of construction sites across the state and that if they go back, they will not return to complete those projects. As a result, the Karnataka government allegedly colluded with the real estate lobby and prevented migrant workers from going back to their homes. This also led to widespread public backlash and many trade unions and activists called this an act of ‘bonded labour’ (Poovanna, 2020).
This act of the Karnataka government barring workers from going back home can be said to have been in violation of the fundamental rights granted under Articles 19(1)(d) and (f) of the Constitution of India. Article 19(1)(d) grants every Indian citizen the “right to move freely throughout the territory of India”. It is understood that the Centre has invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to control the coronavirus pandemic and under it, the government has the right to enforce a lockdown and restrict public movement. However, the act of stopping the Shramik Special Trains by the Karnataka government so that the migrant workers are forced to stay back to work can be seen as a violation of Article 19(1)(d), since those trains were organised by the Centre specifically to transport those who wished to go back home.
Article 19(1)(f) grants every Indian citizen the “right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business”. While contractual law dictates that employees under contract have to fulfil their duties until the expiration of their contract, most migrant workers are employed in the unorganised sector of the economy under labour contractors, thereby falling outside the legal framework of a contract. This means that if they do not get the rights that a regular employee under a contract does then they should be allowed to choose whether they want to work under a labour contractor or not. Since the purpose of the Karnataka government stopping the Shramik Special Trains was to force such migrant workers to go back to work, the act can be seen as a violation of Article 19(1)(f).
While it is true that the migrant workers form the backbone of the urban economy in India since most of them work in the unorganised sector and are essential for economic activities to be carried out, their mistreatment is entirely unjustified. It is important to understand that if they are required by the state in times of stability, then they should also be given special care in times of crisis. Interestingly, even during times of stability, migrant workers live on the bare minimum, with inadequate amenities borne out of lack of access to sanitation, healthcare, education for their children and food. Therefore, it is important to understand the Kerala model, and how their treatment of migrant workers has been much better than almost any other state in the country.
Kerala is a place of work to approximately 25-30 lakh migrant workers, only 1.6% of which chose to go back home. The rest chose to stay back, willingly (M.K., 2020). The government started by calling them “guest workers” instead of migrant workers, giving them a greater sense of belonging. On top of that, the government waived off not only the rent but also any electricity and water charge for these migrant workers till 31st May 2020. What the government was also able to do was give them proper housing facilities with functional sanitation systems – something that most migrant workers in the rest of the country lack. The government also set up a helpline dedicated only to migrant workers, which operated in nine different languages, to assist them in any problem they face during the time of the lockdown. Due to these migrant-friendly measures, there are now reports of even those migrant workers who went back from Kerala, wanting to return to the state (B.S., 2020).
What we see here is not much of a difference between the conditions of the migrant workers who went back to their villages and those who stayed back in the cities. Both these factions faced a lack of food resulting in hunger and starvation, the brutality of police violence through almost no fault of their own, and complete uncertainty of the future and what it holds for them in terms of employment. The Central and state governments were not quick enough to address the problems faced by both factions of the migrant workers. But now that governments seem to have adequate responses and schemes in place to help the migrant workers, it can only be hoped that with the ‘unlocking’ of the country and its economy, those who went back as well as those who stayed, find appropriate job opportunities with better standards of living.
B.S., S., 2020. Kerala Like Home, Not All Migrant Workers Are In A Hurry To Leave. The New Indian Express. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2020/may/13/kerala-like-home-not-all-migrant-workers-are-in-a-hurry-to-leave-2142582.html
Bailwal, N. and Sah, T., 2020. Travails And Travesties: The Plight Of The Migrants Who Didn’t Leave Delhi. The Wire. Available at: https://thewire.in/rights/migrant-workers-delhi-lockdown-stayed
Dey, A., 2020. Delhi Govt Orders Landlords Not To Force Students To Pay Rent For A Month. Hindustan Times. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/govt-orders-landlords-not-to-force-students-to-pay-rent-for-a-month/story-4952qGoiMq6tAI7KSC7afO.html
Khaira, R., 2020. Migrant Workers Who Stayed Back Caught Between Hunger And Govt Apathy. Huffingtonpost.in. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/migrant-workers-covid-coronavirus-india_in_5edfa626c5b6b10e1dabbc56
Lalwani, V. and Chakravarty, I., 2020. These Migrants Did Not Walk Back Home. They Stayed And Are Now Running Out Of Food. Scroll.in. Available at: https://scroll.in/article/957735/these-migrants-did-not-walk-back-home-they-stayed-and-are-now-running-out-of-food
M.K., N., 2020. Lockdown: At Only 1.6% Return Migration, Kerala Holds Clues To Solve The Problem. Livemint. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/lockdown-at-only-1-6-return-migration-kerala-holds-clues-to-solve-the-problem-11589973133404.html
Poovanna, S., 2020. Karnataka Govt Forces Migrant Workers To Stay In Bengaluru. Livemint. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/karnataka-govt-forces-migrant-workers-to-stay-in-bengaluru-to-resume-real-estate-other-activities-11588768995983.html
Sharma, K., 2020. India Has 139 Million Internal Migrants. They Must Not Be Forgotten. World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/india-has-139-million-internal-migrants-we-must-not-forget-them/
About the Author
Dhairya Bhatt is a student at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He is currently pursuing a Bachelors’ degree in Economics.