Unorganised sector

Left high and dry

Print edition : April 24, 2020

Migrant workers going home to their villages sitting atop a bus following the lockdown, on March 28. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Migrant workers and their families stopped at a police checkpoint during the lockdown, on March 28. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

The nationwide lockdown dealt a death blow to the livelihoods of lakhs of already beleaguered workers in the unorganised sector. Even as an exodus of migrant workers overwhelmed bus terminals in Delhi, State governments did little to reach out to the worst affected.

WHEN Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced, at 8 p.m. on March 24, a 21-day nationwide lockdown to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission, he did not spare a thought for the fate of lakhs of workers in the unorganised sector. Even as the public was informed that there was a need to fight the virus together, the televised announcement effectively rendered several workers without jobs and homes in one fell swoop.

As the effect of the announcement sank in, work came to a standstill in manufacturing units, assembling units and construction sites. The Union Home Ministry issued orders to State governments that the lockdown would have to be enforced at any cost. Overnight, lakhs of domestic workers, roadside vendors and daily-wage labourers were left without jobs. Public transport was severely restricted.

As State governments grappled with the situation at short notice, the police in many cities in North India had a field day beating up anyone they chanced on roads. E-commerce delivery boys were not spared either, despite orders from the government that the transport of food and medicines, which come under the ambit of essential services, should not be hindered.

People could neither step out of their homes, nor was any help at one’s doorstep forthcoming. There was no public provisioning of food and other essential items as had been the case in Kerala, where the Pinarayi Vijayan government undertook special efforts to reach out to the people.

In Delhi, a team from the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) did a quick survey of ration shops and found that many were not functioning. People had been left to their own devices. The Central funds announced under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana on March 26, a full 36 hours after the lockdown came into effect, was limited in its coverage and reach. Had the lakhs of daily wage labourers and factory workers been assured of funds in time, it is likely that the mass exodus on March 27 and 28 would not have happened.

Thousands of workers walked from as far as Punjab and Haryana to reach the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal in Delhi from where they hoped to take buses to their villages. On March 27, the inevitable happened. The Anand Vihar Bus Terminal was overcrowded with people anxious to get on to any bus that would take them from the cities. Initially, there were assurances that buses would be organised by the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (UPSRTC) at the border for migrant workers, but the buses never reached the designated places even as the Delhi and the U.P. government evaded responsibility and pointed fingers at each other.

According to media reports, the UPSRTC announced that it would operate 200 buses every two hours on March 28 and 29. The U.P. government had also reportedly made arrangements for food and water for migrants at bus depots in the State. Evidently, the migrants had set off only after some assurance of transport had been given. However, it also a fact that the Delhi government did not have enough time to prepare for the situation. The Central government held three Central cadre officers of the Delhi government accountable and suspended them. The bureaucracy received another jolt when a video circulated of the U.P Chief Minister pulling up an officer using unparliamentary language. The officer went on long leave. Even a week after the lockdown had been announced, the Union Home Ministry continued to issue orders to the Chief Secretaries of States to implement the lockdown order strictly, stop the movement of migrants, provide them with food, shelter and quarantine facilities as well as ensure payment of wages and non-eviction by landlords.

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) wrote a letter to the government on two occasions, demanding urgent statutory measures to ensure that workers were not displaced from employment and that all requirements of food, shelter, health care and clothing were provided to them. The letter said that “appeals” alone would not work.

A huge section of migrant workers from States in north India, West Bengal, Orissa, Karnataka and Telangana work in the informal and formal sector in metropolitan cities across north India, especially in the construction sector. While some left for their villages in panic following the lockdown announcement, many others stayed back. In Haryana, ruled by a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, the CITU set up helplines on its own initiative in district headquarters and received several distress calls on these helplines. Jai Bhagwan, general secretary of the State CITU, told Frontline that there were around 22 lakh migrant workers from Bihar, U.P., Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal in the industrial areas. Nearly 12 lakh of them were construction workers. Jai Bhagwan said: “We have received distress calls from workers in construction sites of even big companies. The owners have left them high and dry. Not all construction workers are registered with the Constructions Workers’ Welfare Board. Only those registered will get the benefits of the cash transfer. The government has promised Rs.4,500 for a period of three months and has released Rs.1,000 to some.” The problem was that the majority of workers were not on the “rolls” of employers. Only 25 per cent of them were on the records of the government. In Panipat, Jai Bhagwan explained, there were three lakh workers, women and men, but only 3,500 of them had Provident Fund accounts and were registered with the Employees State Insurance. “So the number of people who will get the benefit will be very few,” he said.

Draconian measures

The Haryana government announced draconian measures for those violating the lockdown. A widely circulated video showed two Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA workers, on their way to work being beaten by the police for violating the lockdown. These were the frontline health care workers the Prime Minister had asked the public to applaud on March 22.

On March 29, the Union Home Secretary and Cabinet Secretary, at a video conference with Chief Secretaries and Directors General of Police of State governments, expressed “alarm and unhappiness at the large-scale movement of migrant labour on roads on foot followed by an accumulation of a large number of people, especially at the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal.” They also observed that “in order to disperse the crowds, buses had to be provided in large numbers on the evening of March 27 and 28”. At the video conference, State government representatives were instructed to follow the lockdown directions under the Disaster Management Act. District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police were instructed to ensure that there was no movement of people on roads. State government officials from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat were told at the video conference that the nation was facing a public health emergency. The broad framework of the orders passed by the Central government officials laid down that inter-State borders were to be sealed; no person, whether travelling in a bus, truck, tractor, trolley or on foot or by bicycle, would be allowed to cross and if they did, they would be “returned without exception”; persons travelling within districts on foot on highways and roads would be picked up, placed in buses and left in localities from where they started; police were to make announcements that no buses would be allowed to ply from the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal to U.P. or beyond.

The State Home Department of Haryana, while implementing the orders in letter and spirit, went a step further and declared that “big indoor stadiums or other similar facilities” would be used as “temporary jails” to house those who disobeyed. “A zero tolerance policy would be adopted towards anyone violating the lockdown guidelines” and “jaywalking on the roads with luggage or family member” was completely prohibited.

Even as such drastic measures were put into place, the State government did not seem to be doing much to reach out to those who had been worst affected. Jai Bhagwan said that many employers had switched off their mobile phones and were unreachable. The salaries of many workers for the month of March had not been credited. Workers in the unorganised sector were told to fill forms with details of Aadhaar numbers and get them verified by the local corporator in order to get some monetary relief from the government.

Jai Bhagwan said the workers were made to run from pillar to post to get even a little amount of money sanctioned, and that in many places they had reported that the government officials were missing. The government helplines were ineffective. The district administration and the police, he said, had not given CITU volunteers enough travel passes. “Initially they gave us some passes so we were able to deliver rations to some 4,000 persons in parts of Gurugram, Faridabad, Jind and Rohtak, and provide food to several workers in places from where we got distress calls. Now some non-governmental organisations ideologically affiliated to the government have been given permission to prepare food and reach out to the individuals,” he said.

The situation of about two lakh brick kiln workers was just as dire. Most of them, hailing from U.P., Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, lived on the brick kiln sites with their families, far away from the city centres and at the mercy of the owners. They were not registered in any government scheme as they had not been registered as workers in their employers’ records. Jai Bhagwan explained: “This work is seasonal in nature. It begins in December and goes on until June. Most of the workers are stuck at the brick kilns itself as villages have banned their entry owing to the virus scare.”

Harvesting operations

On March 27, the Haryana government issued an order to all farmers and agriculturists that harvesting operations would be done only by machines, ostensibly to ensure physical distancing. But this had a negative effect on employment to agricultural workers. The guidelines for harvesting from the Additional Chief Secretary sent to all Deputy Commissioners, a copy of which is in Frontline’s possession, says that “manual harvesting to be used as a last option.” Even where combine harvesters are to be used, not more than two to five persons are to be deployed. According to the guidelines, clothes worn during harvesting should not be re-used and arrangements for drinking water and eatable items are to be made separately for each individual.

Fahim, a daily wage labourer in North East Delhi’s Welcome Colony told Frontline that the government should have transferred at least three months’ wages into the accounts of unorganised sector workers before announcing the lockdown. “The first time they hit us hard was during demonetisation, and they have done it again. People will die more due to hunger than the virus,” he said.

For the unorganised sector workers for whom demonetisation and then the economic slowdown had dealt a severe blow, the lockdown dealt a further assault on their livelihoods. The mass exodus of migrants gave a glimpse of the crisis in the sector. It is clear that efforts to mitigate the situation in a piecemeal manner are not working. Neither is the forceful confining of the workers and their families in quarantine camps a sustainable option.

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