Sujit Kumar, a worker from Bihar stranded in Bathinda, Punjab, had not eaten in four days when a volunteer from Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) spoke with him on April 3.
Two tribal women from Jharkhand had been told they would be paid Rs.9,000 a month to work in an incense factory in Bengaluru. They were beaten up, paid Rs.200 and made to work for 15 hours a day. One woman was even raped inside the factory premises twice. Civil groups managed to rescue and secure their passage home.
Sanoj was part of a group of 15 people who had been living on the pavement post-lockdown. They had difficulty accessing food and received no help from the police in finding shelter. Fortunately, a SWAN volunteer chanced upon the group and helped it.
Several such stories of suffering and rescue have been chronicled by SWAN, a network of volunteers who banded together very quickly in the early days of the lockdown to help thousands of migrant workers in distress. The network has released reports with information and data that could prove valuable in shaping labour policies.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a “janata curfew” on March 22 in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections, there was a hint that the country would soon have to enter a complete lockdown. However, the announcement shockingly came just three days later and the authorities gave a four-hour deadline to begin a complete shutdown.
It is well documented that millions of people were left confused. The working class was, and continues to be, among those worst affected by the lockdown. The country was witness to heart-wrenching images of men, women and children walking long distances to reach their villages, seeking food and shelter, with some dying en route.
At the time, the unfolding migrant worker tragedy had no impact on the Centre or the State governments. Until early May, little help was given. The failure of the state was so glaring that it was left to civil society organisations, trade unions and ordinary citizens to provide immediate help, even if it was something as minimal as giving just Rs.200 to buy groceries.
On March 27, under the banner of SWAN, a group of academics, social workers, students, union members and concerned citizens spread across the country and began helping workers from various States who were stranded, hungry and shelterless and in need of money to return to their villages.
Over two months, SWAN used an extensive web of humanitarian organisations, trade unions and social workers to help 35,000 migrant workers reach home. This was a drop in the ocean no doubt, given that lakhs of migrant workers were stranded all over the country.
But the point is not about numbers and how many lives were saved but how a group of empathetic and knowledgeable people came together to deploy an effective solution at a time when the government, with all its resources, did not get its act together and even refused to acknowledge the existence of such a crisis.
Furthermore, SWAN’s efforts were not limited to helping the migrant workers reach home. The data collected and analysed by a division of volunteers have been published as three comprehensive reports, which were released at intervals during the lockdown.
Each one is a substantial resource that provides moving accounts by migrants, insights into the crisis, and statistical and data analysis. The reports also include recommendations on handling such a crisis.
A disclaimer says that the exercise was never meant to be a research project but was only aimed at providing immediate help to those badly in need of it.
Yet, because the scale of the tragedy was staggering, the report’s findings went a step beyond being just a record of the initial days of the lockdown.
The reports were deliberately published during the lockdown so that policy makers could take cognisance of the plight of migrant workers. Unfortunaley, they were not given much consideration.
Speaking to Frontline about SWAN’s genesis and its future plans, Bengaluru-based Rajendran Narayanan, one of the main convenors of SWAN and assistant professor at Azim Premji University, said that the entire operation was a collaborative effort by several organisations, collectives, students and even a few committed bureaucrats.
According to him, SWAN as an entity grew organically for a specific purpose for a specific period of time. Its journey began when Sanjay Sahni, a social worker with the Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan (SPSS) in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, received distress calls during the early days of the lockdown from a group of 50 migrant workers from Bihar who were stranded in Mangaluru, Karnataka.
Sahni, who had worked with Narayanan, contacted him and sought his help.
“A few well-wishers sent money to the workers so they could just subsist—buy food, medicines, recharge phones, etc. Word probably got around and soon calls were coming from various sources in different States. Sahni realised the scale was huge and very quickly a group of us realised we had to put together a system to address the crisis,” said Narayanan.
According to him, the system was built on the concept of providing assistance by primarily linking stranded workers with local organisations.
Volunteers set up a helpline that took details of the caller’s problems. These would be verified by the local link, which would then provide help such as food and government facilities for shelter and later, journey home.
Each caller’s information was put on a spread sheet so that the network could track the person and ensure they were safe.
“By March 30-April 1 we had a system in place. A team was looking into finances, another manning helplines, teams [were looking] into verification of information, logistics, technology, social media, etc. Volunteers worked on a shift system so that someone was available at all hours. It was a mind-numbing and emotional experience,” said Narayanan.
He added: “All of it was done purely on a voluntary basis. I tapped into the Azim Premji University alumni [network] for help and the response was amazing.” SWAN had approximately 120 volunteers during the peak of the crisis.
Explaining the operation, Narayanan said that there were people working with SWAN in every troubled State. As the crisis grew, teams were responsible for zones across the country.
“Yet, the reality was that cash in hand was the need of the hour. Reaching out to friends, work associates, anyone who would help, SWAN was able to collect funds that were distributed among stranded migrant workers,” he said.
Responding to word-of-mouth appeals, people donated small and large amounts. The finance team provided directions to the donor on where to send the money; most of the time it was directly to the person in distress.
There were cases where the bank would charge a penalty as the account did not have the minimum balance; to reactivate it, an automatic debit would take place.
“Over two months, we disbursed approximately Rs.50 lakh, which is a reasonable amount,” said Narayanan.
SWAN’s reports include several letters to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the State governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh, indicating its efforts to bring the crisis to the notice of the authorities. “Other than Karnataka, the response from the States was poor. In fact, the Maharashtra government was particularly hostile,” said Narayanan.
Narayanan, who is actively involved in the Right to Food and Right to Work campaigns, said that the lack of social protection measures and safety nets was glaring.
Interestingly, he said, poorer States such as Bihar and Odisha helped their people, while richer States such as Maharashtra and Gujarat shut their doors on those who kept their economies alive.
There are an estimated 10 crore migrant workers in the country, according to available data, although migrant workers do not enjoy formal recognition.
Also, the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India now have 2.5 times the buffer stock norms, and there is no reason why rations should not be universalised, Narayanan said.
According to him, it was a good time to empower the panchayat and form a federation at that level. “They are the only ones who know how many members of the village have left and where the workers have gone. Unfortunately, the Central government has reduced federalism to monopolising decisions and socialising losses.”
Anoushka Kale, a graduate from Azim Premji University and SWAN volunteer based in Pune, said that the experience was an eye-opener. She was fielding 30-40 calls a day in the early days of the crisis. “The conversations were mostlyabout securing food. But I felt speaking to a person in distress humanised them. They may have been desperate but they spoke with dignity and respect.”
The SWAN reports are small repositories of data and a documentation of the migrant crisis. Each one also provides a set of recommendations, including creating a safety net for migrant workers and specifics such as depositing Rs.7,000 into each worker’s accounts until they gain employment again.
The network released its first report, titled “21 Days and Counting: COVID-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and the Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India”, on April 15.
In the introduction, the report said: “The first three weeks of the lockdown have been utterly distressing for stranded workers and goes far beyond mere ‘pareshaani’ as the PM put it. Despite the immense hardships that millions of stranded workers continue to endure, there was still no announcement on economic relief measures for them. Unless a combination of universal rations and money transfers are implemented in letter and spirit, India is staring at alarming levels of destitution and despair.”
The first report deals largely with immediate problems such food and starvation issues. Here are some glimpses of data tabulated from the distress calls in the first report: 50 per cent of workers had rations left for less than one day; 96 per cent had not received rations from the government and 70 per cent had not received any cooked food; and 89 per cent had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown.
“The numbers are alarming both in absolute and in relative terms. Half of those who have reached us would not be able to eat the next day without immediate intervention,” the report said.
“With 78 million tonnes of grains in FCI warehouses, it’s a now-or-never situation. Governments have had two weeks to ensure a robust ration supply network, doorstep delivery, etc., to reduce hunger. However, figures indicate very few have benefited even in the third week of lockdown.”
The second report, titled “32 days and counting”, is an extension of the first and was released on May 1. By then, SWAN had helped 16,863 people. The report describes the various appeals made to the establishment to release support, including a petition filed by SWAN in the Supreme Court. The petition was dismissed on the grounds that the Central government’s programmes were adequately covering migrant distress.
The chapters titled “Rate of hunger and distress exceeding the rate of Relief—Overview” and “Neither one nation nor one ration card, migrants fall between” contain relevant and topical matter within the pandemic context.
Statistics in the second report showed that 32 days after the lockdown began, four out of five workers who reached out did not have access to government rations while 68 per cent did not have access to cooked food.
With no cash relief, 64 per cent of the migrant workers had less than Rs.100 left with them. “With no change since April 14, about 78 per cent of people have Rs.300 or less left with them. As on April 26, only about 6 per cent of all those who have reached out to us have received their full wages during the lockdown. About 78 per cent have not been paid at all. More than 99 per cent of the self-employed have had no earnings during this period. These include street vendors and rickshaw pullers.”
The third report, titled “To leave or not to leave? Lockdown, migrant workers and their journeys home”, looks at the fourth phase of the lockdown and gives detailed accounts of workers trying to get home.
The report said that 67 per cent (of 1,963) migrants were still in the same place when the lockdown was announced; only 33 per cent had left. Some 44 per cent of those who left took buses and 39 per cent managed to get on a Shramik Special train. About 11 per cent travelled by trucks, lorries and other such modes of transport, while 6 per cent made the perilous journey on foot.
The first-person accounts and case studies in this report are gripping. The stories speak of starvation, police brutality, physical abuse and government apathy, revealing the colossal tragedy of the migrant exodus.