The Covid-19 pandemic that has put the whole world into an unprecedented situation was first reported in December 2019. When the first and second waves of Covid hit India, the most vulnerable section became the migrant workers. They lost their job and thus, the means of their livelihood. Due to the unavoidable lockdown and the resultant loss of jobs and financial crisis, the migrant workers were forced to rush to their homes despite travel restrictions.
Did the government succeed in protecting this working class? Has the government brought justice to the migrant workers? Reports have shown that the poor quality of relief camps with meagre rations and poor sanitation facilities psychologically impacted the workers, especially women and children. They also faced harassment and adverse reactions from the local community due to fear of spreading infections.
Many cases of suicide and suicidal attempts were reported as the people were not able to cope up with the problems resulting from loss of jobs and income.
More than 35% of the working population in India are migrants, many of whom died due to starvation, suicide, road and rail accidents, police brutality or denial of timely medical care. Most of the workers are not covered under the numerous schemes of the government due to a lack of database and registration of workers.
Even the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), which guarantees 100 days of employment, failed to provide jobs to the migrant workers. Tussles between the already registered labourers working in villages under various schemes and migrant labourers returning home due to the Covid-induced lockdown were also reported during this time.
The government of India implemented the lockdown at a very short notice of four hours. In my opinion, earlier, the government was trying to control the spread of Covid-19 infection in the country until it took the form of an epidemic, and thus, the government was not intending to implement any lockdown in the near future.
Once the lockdown was announced, the workers rushed in trains and buses to reach their home place. To their surprise, the Indian railways suspended all the trains on March 21-22, 2020 (right after the lockdown was announced), without giving any prior notice, leaving the migrant workers stuck. Since all the public transport was suspended, they head back to their home state on foot, bicycle or autorickshaw.
Though the Central and state governments issued advisories to the employers to pay full wages to their employees during the lockdown, a survey conducted with 11,000 migrant workers across India revealed that 96% of them didn’t receive any ration from the government, 70% didn’t receive any cooked aliment, and as many as 89% didn’t receive any payment from their employers during the lockdown.
India has numerous laws and constitutional provisions for the protection of workers and labourers. However, the problem lies in the effective implementation of these laws. Even after having so many laws in place, people from vulnerable sections continue being subjected to exploitation and at the mercy of employers.