Rajasthan

Hard on labour

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Migrant workers, hailing from Jharkhand, before boarding a special train in Jodhpur on May 22; (right) On Ramganj Bazar Road following the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, in Jaipur on June 1. Photo: PTI

On Ramganj Bazar Road following the relaxation of restrictions during the lockdown, in Jaipur on June 1. Photo: PTI

Rajasthan has transported thousands of inbound and outbound migrants, but its labour law reforms mean more hardships for workers.

Rajasthan was one of the States to have gone in for a lockdown even before the Centre announced it as a cluster of cases was reported in Jaipur and Bhilwara in early March. No sooner had the cluster in Bhilwara been effectively contained than COVID-19 cases began getting reported increasingly in Jaipur, Jodhpur and other densely populated urban settlements. While the initial spurt was attributed to people returning from a congregation in Delhi, it soon became clear that community spread had occurred. By the end of May, all the 33 districts in State had reported infections, especially those bordering Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

The Centre’s sudden decision for a lockdown led to huge inbound migration from these States and places like Delhi and Haryana and outbound migration of workers from Rajasthan to their home States. This, coupled with delays in organising transport for them, contributed to the spread of the virus. The State government now had the twin challenge of arranging transport to and from different States.

The numbers involved were huge. Subodh Agarwal, the State’s Additional Chief Secretary who has been coordinating the transportation of migrant workers, told Frontline from Jaipur that the government could deploy trains only from May 1 after the Central government gave it the go-ahead.

Agarwal said camps had been organised all over the State following Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s clear instructions that no migrant should be seen walking back home. “People were desperate to leave. We tried to convince them. Many even sneaked out of the camps, which we couldn’t help, but we succeeded in helping people reach their home towns,” he said. Yet there were many belonging to Rajasthan walking back to the State from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh as the lockdown got extended.

When the lockdown was first announced, many workers felt that things would be back to normal by the second week of April. But when it was extended, they began to get restive. The initial reluctance of other State governments to organise transport given the “stay where you are fiat” too did not help the situation.

Rajasthan has transported some 12 lakh migrants by buses and trains so far. The State government began deploying buses from March 26 to ferry migrant workers. As many as 37,051 migrant workers going to Madhya Pradesh were dropped at border villages in Chittorgarh, Jhalawar, Sawai Madhopur and Dholpur. And 6,722 people coming back to Rajasthan from Madhya Pradesh were ferried to their villages in various districts.

Similarly, 649 Gujarati migrants were dropped at the Rajasthan-Gujarat border and 11,405 incoming migrants were taken to their respective destinations. As many as 972 Rajasthanis were brought back from Haryana. Some 37,000 from Uttar Pradesh were dropped at the Bharatpur border.

Some of the migrants had to traverse forests, hills and waterbodies to reach their villages in Rajasthan. The administration organised booth-level committees in the interior areas to help them.

While most States were not fussy about taking in their own people, government sources told Frontline that the Uttar Pradesh government insisted that Rajasthan provide the details of every migrant.

‘The poor got poorer’

“Lots of the people who were poor got poorer,” said Agarwal. He said the government had made all efforts to ensure that no one went hungry and that everyone was covered under the National Food Security Act. But Frontline learnt from other sources that there were reports of people’s names getting cut off from ration cards, a claim the officer denied. Agarwal said there were no stories of “shortfalls” or “protests” in the State.

While it is an acknowledged fact that the Congress government was more responsive than some of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments in terms of dealing both with COVID-19 and arranging transport for migrant workers, when it comes to labour laws they are all the same. Some of the labour law reforms enacted by the Rajasthan government, including extending the hours of work from nine to 12, has led to the belief that there is not much difference in the fundamental mindset between the Congress and the BJP vis-a-vis workers. The government revoked the order following strong objections from unions and the intervention of the Congress high command.

However, the Labour Commissioner’s notification allowing factory owners to strike off the names of migrant workers from the rolls permanently if they failed to return to work has still not been revoked. Apparently, a committee was set up to discuss the issue after unions protested against it.

In a factory in Pali, after the owner refused to give wages for April despite the government’s directives, a protest broke out and several people were jailed. The district administration found that the mill owner was guilty of violating labour laws. A union leader in his sixties was taken into custody. He later reportedly died in hospital. In Jaipur, civil society organisations and the Left parties staged a protest when they were denied permission to distribute rations among migrant workers who were stuck in rented accommodations.

Employment

There is no doubt that Rajasthan has been badly hit following the lockdown, with the working population having more or less gone back to their home States. They are not likely to return. Native workers who have returned home are yet to learn the skills required to work in the industrial areas. “Lots of contractual labour have moved out. Initially people hoped that things would get better, but when they didn’t, nobody wanted to stay,” said Agarwal.

Neither could the State authorities persuade them to stay back. He said almost everyone who had returned had been registered and there would some mechanism to skill them so that they could work in the factories now left empty.

“The biggest challenge is to provide food security. The second challenge is employment. Lots of people have left, leaving huge gaps in the economy. But double the number of that migrant labour has come in. We are trying to map them and try to absorb them according to their skills. Several big factories have opened, but the smaller ones are yet to do so,” Agarwal said, adding that the government revenue earnings were only 20 per cent of what it normally earned.

Anil Goswami of the Rajasthan Nagrik Manch, a broad front representing civil society organisations, said the trains carrying migrants were packed to capacity. In some trains more than the specified number of persons were allowed to travel, he said. “A lot of help was given by non-government organisations and mass organisations of the Left parties. Food packets and water were given to those who were going as far as West Bengal and Manipur. At least the government allowed us to help. They were reluctant initially,” he said. More migrants are preparing to leave the State.

Tragic stories too abound, he said. For instance, a woman in Kota who was suffering from cancer jumped in front of a train and died. Goswami said that while the government complained of a financial crunch, it had published a huge advertisement on the anti-tobacco day, which, he said, was a waste of money.

The government, he said, had given Rs.2,500 to street vendors but only to the registered ones. The bulk of street vendors are unregistered. Nomadic tribes and street performers also had not received any relief from the government. “After we wrote to the government about their plight, it said it would conduct a survey,” said Goswami.

Other issues

Other issues people face include their inability to pay electricity bills because of loss of employment. Sanjay Madhav, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, told Frontline that the government should waive the electricity bills of all people, including farmers, for at least six months. But, the government was raising bills based on the average consumption for last year, he said, adding that if people had no money to pay rents how were they expected to pay electricity dues.

There are also many who are unable to repay the housing or commercial vehicle loans. “Many are surrendering the vehicles they have bought. We have demanded that Rs.7,500 be deposited in everybody’s account. It will bring them some relief. There should also be an urban employment guarantee scheme,” Sanjay Madhav said.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary Amra Ram told Frontline that while the government had indeed made arrangements for travel, thousands of applications were rejected. “People made their own arrangements to travel to their home States. In Sikar, they rejected 10,000 applications after asking them to apply online. The Sikar Collector said he had funds for people found walking on the roads but not otherwise. What kind of a logic is this?” said Amra Ram, a four-time MLA and a popular leader among farmers. He pointed out that the labour crunch would be there for some time.

Outstation workers

The factories in the State prefer labour from outside the State as they would not, unlike local workers, make frequent demands to visit their villages. The factory owners, he said, had outstation migrant factory workers at their disposal all through the month. Many workers walked as far as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and even Bihar from industrial areas in the Shekhawati belt of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu, Amra Ram said. “On the one hand they say they are giving a lot of foodgrain, but on the other the administration is refusing to give rations to those who may have lost a family member or married off a family member and whose name would still be there in the card. They insist that first those names be deleted before claiming any entitlement. Ration cards were made 10 years ago. So no new additions are being made but deletions are being insisted upon.”

He also said that as there has a been a good harvest the government should procure produce and distribute it generously. “The farmer is in a bad shape as his harvest is selling much less than the declared Minimum Support Price. The government has expanded procurement. It should include all perishables too,” he said.

Infections rising

Meanwhile, the number of COVID cases has been rising in Rajasthan. Although the rate of testing and samples collected is better than in neighbouring States, Rajasthan is ranked seventh, below Uttar Pradesh, in the total number of people who have died from COVID. Compliance with the State government’s repeated instructions to the private medical sector not to deny treatment to any one seemed to have been weak. On May 30, the government again issued a similar advisory reminding these institutions that they had received various facilities and exemptions from the government from time to time and pointing out that denial of treatment was not only inhuman but a violation of the Supreme Court’s orders as well.

As of June 2, the State has reported 9,100 cases and 199 deaths from COVID-19. Most of these are from Jaipur, followed by Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pali and Kota. With relaxations in place for religious worship and shopping malls, the number is only likely to go up.

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