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On Returning Home, Bihar’s Migrant Workers Were Unable Access Covid-19 Relief

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

The unemployment rate in India sore high due to the Covid-19 lockdown in India. The worst affected were inter-state migrants who were deprived of essentials due to unnecessary bureaucracy.

The pandemic has changed the perspective of migration as an issue globally. It has pointed out the structural inadequacies of the (Indian) state in enabling the basic rights of food and employment. However, a similar situation was witnessed during the demonetisation of influx reverse migration. But the status quo of the various welfare policies has remained more or less unchanged.

The national lockdown brought back the unjust history of the millions of migrant workers who had been victims of the state’s neglect.

Migrant Workers Headed Back To Their Home In Panic Amid Three Week Lockdown To Curb COVID-19 Coronavirus
A wave of migrant workers at Anand Vihar Bus Terminus. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

States like Bihar and UP have been the worse hit during the lockdown. The number of migrants in Bihar itself accounts for 10 million. And the interstate migrants account for 1.4 million. Out of this, 20% migrate for work to Delhi and NCR, accounting for 0.3 million.

And even half of them going back can lead to “state shock” due to lack of employment opportunities, unjust working conditions, unhygienic lifestyle, and limited health facilities.

The loss of employment and other urban city expenses forced the migrants to return to their homes. But despite the lack of necessities, the desperation of the people was revealed with the rising case of human trafficking in the state.

Migration In Bihar

Migration in Bihar has existed for more than a century. However, it has increased over the years due to the lower agricultural output, lack of industries to support the workers and their families, social stigma based on identities of the caste system and lesser (other) economic opportunities.

The current crisis has pushed them back to the periphery and made them more vulnerable to exploitation. Among the population of Bihar, 56% are invested in agriculture, 8% in industries and 32% in services. Post lockdown, 25–30 lakh people have returned to the state, with unemployment rising to as high as 46.6% in April 2020.

Moreover, Bihar’s alone unemployment rate is 7.24 against the national average of 6.1. Furthermore, the casual labour in Bihar is higher than the national average, which is 32.1% against 24.4%. In addition, the state’s sedentary structure/policies have made access to social entitlements difficult for casual/seasonal labourers.

These state policies made mobility difficult for the labourers earlier. But due to a lack of documents now like ration cards, they cannot avail of basic entitlements like additional food and employment benefits. Although, Bihar has contributed immensely to the national growth and development through its highest GDP contribution and youngest labour.

Policy Interventions

The government has introduced various policy regulations and relief packages in the context of the global crisis. First, the central government has introduced a ₹1.7 crore relief package under the program of Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for the farmers. This scheme includes/provides money transfer, gas cylinders, daily wage-earning opportunities in the formal sector and support to senior citizens.

woman working at brick kiln
A woman working at a brick kiln. (Representational image via flickr)

The Modi government also launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan in Katihar village in Bihar. This scheme was to ensure the overall development of villages in terms of internet access and other city like facilities which were not present in the state before. Moreover, this scheme also manifests that the returned migrants would be able to work near their homes and would not have to migrate again amid the crisis.

Under this scheme, 25 rural-centric employment generation schemes have been combined in 25 areas which include 116 districts of six states. The states which have been part of this program have a large number of migrant workers, including Bihar. The number of districts of Bihar which have been part of the program is 32 out of the total of 38 districts.

Bihar is also one of the first states to conduct skill mapping training to find numerous employment opportunities for migrant workers. So, it also informs the government to create likewise opportunities and are easily accessible.

For security, the government has introduced the Essential Commodities Act, 2020, which stipulates the prices of the essential commodities and prevents them from hoarding.

Beneficiaries’ Reality

Bihar’s state policies and the initiatives taken or those that existed have proven insufficient to meet the needs of migrant labourers.

The first setback was the inability of the state government to take immediate steps during the crisis due to its heavy dependence on the centre for financial and other policy decision-making.

Second, the seasonal migrants who were unable or did not return home for a long time are not ration card holders, which exempts them from any benefits organised by the state, such as the additional free food grains under the PDS scheme.

They also cannot avail the benefits of the MNREGA policy under increased MNREGA wages. Moreover, they will also not be able to benefit from the grants provided to the landlords because they are landless or nominal farmers (labourers) in their state.

Migrant workers carrying their belongings walk along a
Migrant workers carrying their belongings walk along a railway track to return home. (Photo by Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Third, these labourers who migrated to the cities for work will not be able to benefit from the same work in their state because of the low registration in buildings and other construction welfare boards. Therefore, immediate state intervention is needed, which caters to the seasonal/casual labourers not only in the employment sector but also in the health sector like health bonds.

Some of the major state interventions can be initiated in the sector where most of the migrated population was engaged in urban areas such as construction. For instance, the state could reopen the projects which have been delayed or were suspended like the flood management work. Another example could be the Patna Metro Rail project.

The largest employment policy, MNREGA, could be extended to include the migrated/seasonal labourers. Moreover, the state government should also provide secure employment to the migrant workers within their state because of various social reasons, like low wages and exploitation by the employers, bad experiences with the employers before returning home.

Human Trafficking: The Last Resort

One of the major distress caused during the pandemic was human trafficking, particularly child trafficking in the state. The natural calamity of floods in Bihar, along with the spread of Covid-19, led to a recent increase in the cases of child trafficking.

These children are used as labourers in the factories. The families of these children, unable to meet the basic living conditions, have been forced to send their children to work. The situation was worsened by the flood caused in the state, which left them with no homes, employment and food.

child labour
Bihar alone accounts for 10.7% of child labourers in India between 5–14 years of age.

The number of child labourers in Bihar amounts to 1.08 million, with Gaya being the largest hub of employing child labourers with 78,929 children. Moreover, around 13 districts other than Gaya have reported a high number of child labourers in the state, which accounts for a total of 55%. Bihar alone accounts for 10.7% of child labourers in India between 5–14 years of age.

In 2020, a total of 72 traffickers were arrested and 300 children were rescued. However, this does not address the issue of child trafficking because the state policies do not even come close to recognising the basic issues. For instance, Husas Shah, a villager from Shiv Nagar, Bihar, said, “Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act has failed to serve any purpose.”.

On the other hand, a human trafficking survivor Mohammad Chotu goes through the villages of Bihar to spread awareness about falling prey to human trafficking. Along with the 50 other child survivors, he takes steps to ensure children’s safety and inform people about the physical and mental abuse.

They are part of the Mukti Caravan campaign started by child rights NGO Kailash Satyarthi Foundation and cover approximately 500 villages in five districts. Moreover, they have increased the scope of the campaign to 1,000 villages in 10 districts due to the current crisis in the state.

Conclusion

Migration, as witnessed by the various states like Bihar and UP in the pandemic, has opened new discourse altogether, highlighting the various standpoints that make it a national issue. The severity of the pandemic is seen by the most vulnerable states like Bihar, which has challenged the idea and practice of human rights.

The unpreparedness of the state in dealing with an emergency like this raises many questions about the capability and ability of the state. Migrants in many parts of Bihar could not avail of the most basic facilities due to a lack of documents. This shows the mindset of the state created to advertise various policies without creating proper channels to avail them.

The changes in the PDS system, MNREGA and many other policies failed due to the state’s top-down approach. The pandemic brought the issue of seasonal migration to the forefront, with several aspects coming to the fore. The major aspect of being treated like a foreigner in their native state is due to the structural fractures existing in the state system.

Moreover, human trafficking in the state also shows the cruelty of the state and the existing structure of not being able to provide alternatives to the given circumstances.

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