Impact of State’s negligence on India’s most vulnerable and voiceless workforce

Tehzeeb Alam & Shaneha Tarannum

India is a poor country with more than 80% of people engaged in the informal sector and working in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Banglore. The entire world is facing the problem of coronavirus and so is India.

Narendra Modi government decided to lockdown the entire nation and gave four hours for people to decide about reaching their respective destinations. Without taking protective measures, the government exposed the migrant workers. They panicked for their survival without work and livelihood but somehow threat of corona contained them at their respective places. The Government failed to analyse their grim situation. Lack of official exclusive policies for the migrant workers made them anxious to move out for reaching their native places. We have seen the situation of migrant workers during the first phase of the lockdown.

Now the government has extended lockdown till 3 May. We are getting the information that the migrant workers of Mumbai and Gujarat tried to assemble at buses and railway stations. Police started their job of chasing them and beating them up brutally. Instead of seeing them as a nuisance, the Government must protect their rights; provide them with basic necessities. At this point allocation of exclusive relief, packages are urgent.

The Government must take cognizance of their problems and take immediate action. Prime minister should take the responsibility to console them not just by making them sacrificial lambs rather by making concrete plans for them. They are being alienated and forgotten in government policies.

They need immediate attention. If they come out in clusters, we would lose the purpose to defeat corona.

The state is responsible to protect and facilitate its citizens. The state has greater responsibility to make people safe and protect them while countering the emerged situation. Lockdown does not mean to lock up everything. It means to reduce physical contact with each other but still, people need basic commodities to survive.

Migrant workers far away from their homes and family want to protect them from both corona and hunger. Workers are forced to come out because of the many existential threats other than Corona. This is an alarming situation and it exposes the state unpreparedness to counter natural calamity like a corona. Every nation must be prepared for unprecedented situations. At this time every country needs to pay heed to develop medical facilities to tackle the medical emergency.

We are in a race to purchase weapons of mass destruction to protect ‘false sense of security’. In this situation, everyone is at risk across classes but every time poor people have to pay the cost of an unpleasant or threatening situation. These people put in a great effort for the economy and work to go on smoothly but are not rewarded from the state and society. They are involved in every inch of the road we walk on and every building we walk past but we have made those very workers invisible everywhere who are responsible for the most visible infrastructure.

India’s coronavirus outbreak has put a spotlight on the tough life of seasonal workers.

According to a rapid assessment survey by Jan Sahas, a civil society organization working on human rights of socially disadvantaged groups, as many as 92.5 percent of labourers have already missed one to three weeks of work. This loss of income is devastating for them. Over 80% of the country’s migrant and daily wage population fears it will run out of food before the end of the lockdown. Many also worry that they will not be able to find work once the lockdown ends, found Jan Sahas, which surveyed 3,196 migrant workers across northern and central India between March 27 and 29.

Migrant labourers are among the most vulnerable parts of the “informal sector,” which make up to 80% of India’s workforce.

More than half a million people have already left India’s cities. Al least 20 died on the way to their destination. There was no plan for such a reaction, and no detailed contingency plans seemed to be in place. Jan Sahas, an Indian nonprofit, recently conducted a survey, “Voices of the Invisible Citizens,” about the impact of the lockdown on migrant workers. They interviewed 3,196 migrant construction workers from northern and central India. The results paint a dismal picture: “62 percent of workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 percent did not know how to access the existing schemes.”

The government asked voluntary organizations to help, and provide food packages but they always found falling short. Migrant workers do not seem to be much of a consideration for politicians. These workers lack political strength despite having numbers. They are fragmented as many are registered to vote in their village but they are usually not able to vote as they stay back in their place of work.

Migrant workers are almost invisible because they are constantly moving between villages and cities, and among work sites, which makes capturing their numbers a difficult task. The federal government’s 2017 economic survey said, “If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20 percent, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million.” India has welfare measures for people below the poverty line, but it is seen that migrant workers hardly have access to them.

The state should not treat them like criminals. They are the foundation of our nation. If governments do not address their valid problems we will face revolt like situation and this precarious situation might convert into the war-like situation. They will come out on the roads if things are not made easy for them and this will make us more vulnerable at the hands of COVID19. They need to feel associated with the government and not the fragmented part of the state.

Tehzeeb Alam is a Research Scholar,  Aligarh Muslim University.

Shaneha Tarannum is a Research Scholar at Department of Social Work, Maulana Azad National Urdu University.



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