To be able to call oneself privileged is indeed a great privilege in itself. During the 9th standard in school, I got lucky to play a small part in a school skit given my acting skills. I feel it was just another gift of being privileged. As I got selected just a day before the play was supposed to happen, I was oblivious to the larger plot.
On d-day, with my two-line dialogue mugged up in my head, I headed to the school stage. Fortunately, the play went well-without any stupid omission on my part. The Principal came on stage and gave a speech on why we did the play on that very particular day. Her speech knocked on my oblivious head and made me realise for the first time that it was May Day — a day celebrated as International labour day.
The date is not the only thing that has stayed with me for so many years. The play left me with some unforgettable memories and helped me sympathise with someone usually ignored. Even today, after so many years, this play about the plight Indian labourers face at workplaces has stayed afresh in my memory. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last ten-odd years for the labour fraternity: abject poverty, destitution and a sense of callousness by the employer as well as the government is still a part of their life and the existing reality.
10 years ago, I learned about the date. This May Day, I learned about its history and purpose. In May 1886, Chicago’s Haymarket Square witnessed an unprecedented protest. The working class protested for an 8-hour work schedule. Many workers died in the protest, but in the end, the labour force was able to make their masters acquiesce to their just demands. Since then, labour laws, fixed working hours and labour unions have become part of the social and political spectrum we live in.
The protest may have been successful in bringing certain reforming labour laws and proactive labour union, but the callousness of the state and the employers towards labourers persists. Since then, hundreds of political parties, labour unions and NGOs have born and died with the motto of making lives of labourers less precarious and more dignified. But the grim reality of extreme callousness still exists, especially in India.
The novel coronavirus and the prolonged lockdown has again brought this callousness to the light. India announced a complete lockdown on March 24, bringing every economic activity to a complete standstill. Thus, leaving everyone, especially migrants and daily-wage labourers without work. The lockdown, which was going to be the world’s most stringent lockdown, practically gave 4 hours to settle down. In this sense, it wasn’t much different from a previous such decision of the Modi Government — Demonetisation.
Due to this sudden announcement and complete halt on any transport, lakhs of labourers were stuck wherever they were, effectively flooding the cities with unwanted migrant labourers from remote areas of States like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh.
Interestingly, the government did promise for their subsistence and dignified life. But soon after the lockdown, the pictures of migrant labourers walking across State borders and sudden protests like that in Surat and Bandra were enough to tell the true story — a story filled with apathy, callousness and destitution.
Thousands of migrant labourers set their journey afoot, walking hundreds of kilometres on foot, some even reached home, some had to contend with a quarantine centre. On the other hand, lakhs of them were stranded in the cities they were employed in without proper food, shelter and money.
During all this, the only things that these stranded labourers had was a never-dying hope of rescue from their Pradhan Sevak and a sorry from the PM himself. However, the Pradhan Sevak took more than a month to acknowledge their plight.
In the times of Twitter, where the government every other day gets praised for adhering to requests made by elite businessmen stranded abroad, maybe the message of migrant labourers plight took too long to reach the PMs office. Elites always get expensive flights to board in such an emergency, but the poor and vulnerable ones have to content with their plight. Fortunately, after some odd 30 days of complete neglect, the government finally started deliberation and discussion to rescue these stranded labourers.
Although a bit late, but at least the government is thinking about these “unwanted” urban dwellers. Perhaps, it would be better now if the government starts behaving more humanely during this crisis and arranges for not just inter-state trains but free trains. It can thereby render these psychologically and economically battered labourers to the comfort of their beloved families, at least.
Just like the play and the subsequent speech made me realise the horrific realities of a labourers life, the current pandemic has exposed how fragile the safety net is for them. The government, as well as the civil society, now has an opportunity to strengthen this fragile safety net and ensure the safety and dignity of that construction worker, factory labourer, house-maid or driver who has made our cities what they are today.