Nonchalance and ignorance regarding migrant workers in India and their woes can result in the issue being undermined completely says Adya Madhavan
Issues concerning migrant workers in India has been a constant struggle behind the scenes at India’s industries and construction sites since the people started moving to cities in search of work decades ago.
Yet it took a global pandemic, a nationwide lockdown, and a flurry of headlines to wake up to the harsh reality that is an everyday battle for many.
When the Prime Minister of India first announced the lockdown last year following the COVID-19 outbreak, he asked the country to ‘forget what it’s like to step out of the house for 21 days’. For most of us, the immediate concern was being confined within four walls for the foreseeable future. However, for almost one-tenth of our population dependent on seasonal migration for work boredom and inconvenience is an unaffordable luxury.
Unrecognized issues of Migrant Workers In India
This unorganized and invisible workforce builds our cities, helps us go about our daily lives and facilitates the construction of houses and other structures around us. And yet, in the midst of a pandemic, the majority of the country seems to show a magnificent display of apathy to the same people the city is indebted to.
Most migrant workers live in informal and unrecognized spaces in the cities. Many of them are often crammed into small rooms or areas since these workers typically cannot afford better accommodation due to appallingly low wages.
Even if they were to stay in their lodgings in the cities, a possibility that remains far-fetched given that migrant workers are paid extremely low wages, social distancing would be impossible to practice with large numbers of people constantly in close proximity.
The government stepped in to try and provide food and cash transfers for the workers so they would be able to pay rent and stay put in the city during the lockdown duration. However, this response is insufficient. This is partly because of technical restrictions or a hasty response to the crisis resulting from lockdown. Many in need of assistance were not included in the list of beneficiaries.
Many do not have the proper paperwork and consequently aren’t registered to be on these lists. Of those who were enlisted to receive these cash transfers, a significant number did not have bank accounts let alone net banking systems and access to ATM cards.
Long road home
The migrant workers wanted to return to their families and village in these difficult times. However, transportation services were inaccessible and they had to undertake their journey on foot.
They did not have enough money to provide for themselves for the duration of the journey. Further, they were subjected to police harassment for not following lockdown rules. Even those who made it to state borders were often stopped and prevented from entering and were asked to provide documentation which they did not have. Many speculated that the workers would carry the virus back to villages.
With the ease of restrictions, workers have now begun returning to the cities in search of work. Back to the same difficult circumstances that have been further exacerbated by COVID-19.
Although the circumstances are dynamic, there are two things to keep in mind. Firstly, the plight of India’s millions of migrant workers is not a new issue that arose due to COVID-19, it simply came to light and was compounded as a result of the lockdown. Millions perpetually live in slums and rooms that are unbelievably small to us, they still work in conditions that are often unsanitary as well as unsafe. Despite doing harsh physical labour day in and day out they barely manage to make ends meet.
Secondly, there is still by and large a widespread lack of information amongst citizens regarding migrant worker issues. Although during the first few months of 2020 there was some media coverage of the issue, the focus of the media was largely on the economic and health-related repercussions of the virus.
Most of us who are fortunate enough to have a place to stay, a stable income in the family and can afford the luxury of staying home and practising social distancing have still been caught up in our own little microcosms as the number of cases fluctuated. Even people who are aware of the ongoing migrant crisis often sweep it under the carpet as they see it as someone else’s concern. But the nonchalance and ignorance of an entire country can result in the issue being undermined completely.
Appreciating the migrant Workers in India
For decades, India’s migrant labour has gone unseen. They propel industries that are the pillars of an economy that they are yet to benefit from. We’re all indebted to them in some way or another, directly or indirectly.
India initially turned its back on over 100 million workers during one of the most trying times in history, and yet after all this, they have returned to the factories, industries and construction sites where they previously worked.
As a nation, it’s imperative that we don’t make the same mistake of neglecting the needs and wellbeing of such a large percentage of our population ever again. It’s time we do our part. Whether by taking an active part in the COVID relief response or donating money, or even simply raising awareness regarding issues concerning India’s Migrant Workers.
Feature Photo by Ivan Henao on Unsplash