In India, migrant laborers bear the brunt of informality, government apathy and lockdown

Many migrant laborers, who are exploited to the maximum during ‘normal’ times, have been left to starve by their employers during the lockdown even as the government has failed to address their needs

April 26, 2020 by Balu Sunilraj, Suresh Garimella
In many parts of India, private donors have done much more than the government to ensure food for stranded migrant workers. Photo: DW News

The COVID-19 lockdown in India is in its fifth week. The Indian government, led by the far-right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, has come in for severe criticism for its handling of the lockdown, especially its neglect of migrant workers. Balu Sunilraj and Suresh Garimella, senior researchers at the Centre for Equity Studies, talked to some of these migrant workers on their situation before the lockdown, their struggles during this period and their concerns regarding the future.

In the context of the migrant crisis and exodus during the stringent lockdown imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in India, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by noted social activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj in the Supreme Court. A status report was submitted on this PIL by the home secretary in the Supreme Court. Point 40 of that report is particularly important. A portion of it is given below.

“It is submitted in that in view of the aforesaid financial package which takes care of daily needs of every poor person, which include migrant workers as well as their respective families in their original villages, there was no necessity for migration of workers to rush to their villages who started shifting from place of their occupation to the place of their residence.”

These remarks are reflective of the overall nature of the report i.e. the return of migrant workers to their villages defeats the purpose of lockdown since they are anyway taken care of in their respective places of occupation. However, large-scale studies conducted in the aftermath of the lockdown have refuted this claim. For instance, according to a report prepared by SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network), 96% of workers in their sample had not received rations from the government, while 70%had not received any cooked food. This report was released on April 15, nearly three weeks after the lockdown was announced. Clearly, this is not a situation in which “their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were working.”  In this article, we attempt to narrate similar experiences of certain migrant laborers in the informal sector, who could not leave their place of occupation in Delhi.

Mofidul, 35, Malda, West Bengal

Mofidul is an embroidery worker who came to Delhi from the State of West Bengal in 2003. He lives in Shahpur Jat, one of the hubs of migrant workers in Delhi. Along with 18 other workers, Mofidul stays in a 15×12 hall, in which they also work, eat, and sleep. Falling sick in such conditions would in itself be an expensive affair. Mofidul, who earns only Rs. 300 Rs per day (USD 3.9), would have to spend nearly a day’s wage to visit the local doctor. Until now, the only solace was that Mofidul did not face starvation. He managed to have three meals a day, even if no other need was met.

It is in these perilous and uncertain conditions that the lockdown began. Mofidul, along with other workers, had already booked train tickets anticipating something akin to a lockdown. However, it was announced on the day they booked their tickets.  He lamented that the Railways did not even refund the full cost of his ticket.

Life post-lockdown has been a nightmare for Mofidul and his co-workers. They have still not received pending payments from contractors. This includes wages for the entire month of March.  The contractors, it seems, were not impressed by the moral sermons of prime minister Narendra Modi on the need to take care of workers. Their remaining savings allowed Mofidul and his fellow workers to somehow manage food for the first week. However, since then, they have been completely dependent on private donors. Apart from this, the local moneylender from whom they had borrowed money before lockdown has been demanding his share.

Most nights, Mofidul can’t sleep till very late.  He stays up pondering the uncertain future. He says, “If the market does not reopen in two months, we will die of starvation.” The days when he could at least manage three square meals seem like a distant dream.

Abdul Wahab, 24,Uttar Dinajpur, West Bengal

Like many other migrants, Abdul was forced to leave his home State of West Bengal due to the lack of viable economic opportunities. He came to Delhi eight years ago and became a street vendor. Later on, he started working for a street cart owner. He says, “It is very difficult for newcomers to open shops.”

He stays in ‘Pillanji Gaon’ in a small 6×8 dingy room which he shares with six others. He used to earn 350 rupees per day (USD 4.6) which amounts to Rs. 10,000 per month (USD 131), half of which he sent to his parents in his village.

When the lockdown was announced, he could not head back home since the owner of the shop handed over responsibilities to him and left for his village. Abdul was left alone, with no support. He had to stay back as this was the only way he could retain his job when the lockdown was lifted. In a world without contracts, life and security take a backseat when it comes to job security. “If I stay now, I will have a job later. So I stayed,” he says.

Like most migrants, Abdul is yet to receive any help from the government. This means complete dependence on private donations since he and his friends have run out of money. Already earning far below the minimum wage, Abdul did not get any payment in March due to lack of sales. The employer, therefore, postponed his payment. Abdul cannot pressurize his employer to pay him since this again could cost him his job. The deadly combination of informality and uncertainties of the lockdown means the ruination of migrant lives.

Abdul is not alone in facing distress. This is the condition of almost all the migrant laborers who work in the locality called S.N market. Like them, Abdul hopes that the economy bounces back to normality after the pandemic. If not, millions like him would be unemployed. He also hopes to leave for Bengal immediately after the lockdown is lifted. The expenses in Delhi are increasingly becoming unbearable.  He says, “We need to pay for everything here. In the village, we adjust, we can sustain ourselves.

Sampath, 32, East Midnapur, West Bengal

Sampath came to Delhi 18 months back. Before that, he was searching for jobs in the city of Kolkata. But he could not find a stable job there. In Delhi, he did several petty jobs, before taking up his current one, which is that of a helper in a distribution agency. He assists in sorting products and updating records. The distribution agency has a third party contract with Amazon. His salary is a paltry Rs. 9000 a month (USD118).  However, with the lockdown, the unpredictability regarding employment has propped up once again in his life. He has already started searching for a new job as his employer has not confirmed that he will retain his current one. He has no other option since he is the sole breadwinner of his family, and his aged parents are dependent on him.

Staying in a 6*6 room which he shares with his other casual workers, Sampath struggles to eat twice a day. He has no money since he has not received his salary for March. He is therefore completely dependent on donors. There was absolutely no time for any preparation due to the sudden announcement of the lockdown.  He only had 3 kgs of rice when the lockdown was announced. While that was sufficient initially, it has been an unendurable ordeal for the last several days. But even in the middle of this agony, Sampath’s thoughts continue to be with his parents who have been sleeping with empty stomachs, since they have not received any money from him this month.

Vikram Kumar Roy, 24, Uttar Dinajpur, West Bengal

Vikram’s father is a sharecropper (tenant farmer) and his family consumes a large share of rice which they produce in the fields. There were no employment opportunities in the village, and Vikram also had the extra responsibility of paying for his sisters’ wedding ceremonies, in addition to supporting his parents. He himself is married. Therefore, he shifted to Delhi nine months ago in search of a job. Soon, he started working in a shop in SN market.

For 300 Rs (USD 3.9), Vikram worked for nearly 12 hours every day. Since he was paid daily, Vikram rarely took a day off. The owner was rarely present and would only come by in the evenings to pay the wages. The work in the shop was entirely carried out by Vikram and his co-workers.

Vikram’s actions and decision ahead of the lockdown were largely dependent on the instructions given by his employer. The market was closed on March 22 and 23. The shop-owner, Vikram said, left for his village. He promised Vikram and the others that he would return within two days. However, soon, the lockdown was announced. Vikram and his co-workers did not leave for their homes as they had been told the market would be shut for only two days. He believes that the decision to close the market was unilaterally taken by the shopkeepers in SN Market without any orders from above. Now he is not only uncertain about when the market will reopen but also about whether he will have a job once it does.

When the lockdown was announced, Vikram had in his pockets merely Rs. 1,000 (USD 13.1) that the shop owner had given him before he left for his village. While he struggles to get two meals every day, what he is most perturbed by is the condition of his family back in Bengal. “I am worried about them. They also have not been able to eat,” he says.

Vikram demands that the government help migrants like him get back to their villages immediately. He hopes that he would be able to get back soon and work as an agricultural laborer. He says that even if that pays less, he would at least be able to get some food. He is extremely skeptical of resuming life in the city in such unpredictable conditions.

There are several features common to these narratives. First, even before COVID-19 and the lockdown, these laborers were already victims of unequal power relations in the informal sector which while barely allowing for their survival, also prevented their mobility. While they were exploited to the maximum during ‘normal’ times, migrant workers in the informal sector, who have nothing to sell apart from their labor-power, are left to starve by their employers during the lockdown. Their experiences are an indictment of successive government policies which allowed for such precarity to emerge. In the latest episode of this nature, the Karnataka State government stated that they cannot transfer funds to informal workers since there is no data on them.

Second, we do not see any sign of the migrants being taken care of, as is being claimed by the Central government. They struggle daily to make ends meet and are overwhelmingly dependent on non-state donors/actors. The only variable which has been relevant in mitigating the concerns of the migrants has been the efficiency of state governments. The example of Kerala comes into mind.

The Supreme Court of India has been exhibiting an elitist mentality on the matter. “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”  said the chief justice of India to Prashant Bushan who was representing Harsh Mander in his PIL on the condition of migrant laborers. However, the aforementioned study and our accounts indicate that migrants are not regularly provided with food by the state.  Second, even if migrants were provided with food sufficiently, does it mean the end of the state’s responsibility towards them? Are they not deserving of healthcare, monetary compensation due to loss of working days, and job security post-lockdown?  Most importantly, is it not the state’s responsibility through proactive interventions to ensure that those dependent on migrants are taken care of?

Overall, it would seem that migrants are invisible beings. There is no acceptance of their concerns, struggles, emotions and heart-breaking tragedies. Their desire to return to their villages is not being considered, even when similar concerns of middle-class students stranded in Kota are addressed proactively by the state. Class, it seems, continues to make a defining difference when it comes to state action. To sum up, as N.R. Musahar pointed out in his recent commentary in the New Left Review, the Indian government is more than happy to push migrants to ‘starvation measures.’

The views of the authors are personal.