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Migrant Workers’ Plight And The Idea Of Development In Pandemic

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

As the world’s largest democracy, we have failed in ensuring the very purpose of Article 39 of the Indian constitution (which directs to eradicate inequality of economic development). Since our first five-year plan, the country’s focus has been to end developmental inequality among the states. The differential development of States (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi developing fast while others are left behind) defeated this purpose. These developed states provide a better livelihood platform to the poor population of the backward States. This led to interstate migration in India. 

The recent pandemic due to the SARS-COV-2 has brought to the fore the true nature of India’s socio-economic structure. The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crores or 37% of the country’s population. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies(CSDS) and Azim Premji University estimates that 29% of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers. The same studies show that more than 85% of daily wagers earn less than ₹10,000 per month. The share of migrant workers is highest in the construction sector, which also contributes to around 5–6% of India’s GDP.

The state dictated sudden lockdown deprived the most vulnerable community (such as daily wage migrant workers) of accessing the means of livelihood opportunities. Unavailability of food and other essential services at the doorstep of workers went against their right to life (Art 21). The state failed to assess the situation beforehand, keeping in mind the migrant worker condition. Assessment by the state could have started by the time India faced the first imported coronavirus case on 30 January, 2020. 

By forming a committee in advance and formulating a policy which would have accommodated the best practices of several countries (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, etc.) would have been the best idea. The poor healthcare infrastructure of our cities couldn’t provide poor people with enough avenues for taking sanitation or social distancing measures. They live in the most congested setups, which makes the recovery process altogether difficult. 

Lockdown
Inter-State movement was suspended during lockdown.

The decision to suspend the inter-state movement was a disaster for them. When they tried to leave for their homes in this hunger crisis, they were seen as carriers of coronavirus and were subjected to police brutality. Even their home states didn’t empathize, and the conditions of the government-run quarantine centres showed the apathy of our leaders towards poor people. Reverse migration on foot showed us a picture of India which we never imagined after 72 years of independence.

These panics could’ve been avoided to some extent by communicating the right message (addressing the pre-occupied fear of the virus) as well as providing them with resources (food, cash, etc.) before the lockdown was forced upon them.

The central government’s first tranche of package consisting of 1.7 lakh crore relief lacked the intent and proved too little considering this unprecedented situation. Its free 5 kg food grain and 1 kg pulses, free cooking gas and direct cash transfer (₹500 per month in every woman’s Jan-Dhan account) benefits failed to achieve its goals. 

The free food grain scheme lacked a provision to avail free ration to migrant workers in the states they were stuck in. Women had to travel to the bank to withdraw ₹500 as most of them didn’t have an ATM card. Only 13% of the allocated free food was distributed among migrant workers who didn’t have a ration card.

Early nationwide implementation of the “one nation one ration card” scheme and doorstep delivery of financial services to the vulnerable classes could have eased this situation to a large extent. Even migrant workers who returned to their villages on foot couldn’t get a job under MGNREGA due to extension of the lockdown guidelines till 19 April, 2020. The central government revised these guidelines to allow MGNREGA related work only after 20 April onwards.

This situation could have been avoided with the advance release of adequate funds to the state. The situation required the state to develop a strategy to absorb surplus returnee workers under MGNREGA and provide them compulsory work or either pay them mandatory unemployment allowances under the scheme.

Despite a visible policy gap by the Centre and State, dome states showed a little more empathy. UP was the first state that arranged food, temporary shelter and buses for stranded workers. In a pragmatic and progressive policy decision, they also initiated the “mapping of the skill set of the migrant workers in the government database” to realize them a better and sustainable livelihood opportunity. However, these decisions didn’t make much of an impact and left large migrant workers to struggle on their own.

Also, the inconsistent policy directives by the central government confused the states and harmed the idea of cooperative federalism. It’s high time we empathize enough with the plight of migrant workers who drive much of the demand/consumption in the economy and also act as the foundation of a prosperous India. 

The idea of development needs a rejig, which could see the migrant worker as an equal partner rather than an object to exploit. We need to imbibe Gandhi’s idea of a self-sufficient village economy in addition to the idea of smart city and urban development. The delicate balance between these two ideas can ensure the welfare of migrant workers. The way forward could be skilling our human resources (especially the poor working-class) and seeking technological leap through industry 4.0.

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  1. Georgian Shankar

    Very well explained the scenarios of worker at time of covid-19 lockdown. 👏👏

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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