Migrant workers among worst hit as curbs put in place to check Covid-19 cases
Pavan Sahni, 30, an ice cream seller, would earn ₹400 daily in Rajasthan’s Neemrana before lockdown was imposed there to check the second Covid-19 wave that has overwhelmed hospitals and starved them of life-saving oxygen and beds. He has since found it hard to sustain his family of four. Sahni, who lives in a small, rented room with his wife and daughters aged nine and seven, has also been unable to return to his native Vaishali in Bihar as he does not the money for it.
“It is a much worse situation this time,” said Sahni, referring to the lockdown imposed last year to check the pandemic spread that forced tens of thousands of migrant workers left jobless to cycle or walk back to their homes.
Sahni said around 15 people from his village, who sold ice creams in Neemrana, have returned to their homes. “... we could not. There is no money left for us to travel back home [over 1,300 kilometres away].”
Sahni said they utilised all their savings during the lockdown last year and that they fear for their survival. He added people were reluctant to offer help as they are fearful of getting infected. “Last year, many neighbours would offer us food. This time no one came. People are fearful because of the virus,” said Sahni. “My daughter injured her foot last week and that wound had to be stitched. The medicine and ointment cost ₹500. I did not have any money to pay for it. I asked the chemist if we could pay later but he refused. My wife somehow managed to borrow money. The times are bad. How would anyone lend me money? Most of the people I know are skipping meals.”
Many like the Sahnis are finding it difficult to stay afloat as lockdowns imposed across the country in the face of surging infections have left them jobless.
According to Stranded Workers Action Network (Swan), a volunteer group, livelihood distress is beginning to rise again among workers like Sahni as the economic activity has come to a standstill across India. “As many as 81% of the workers, who are stranded or are in their homes, said that work had stopped in early April due to locally declared lockdowns/restrictions,” said a Swan report based on survey conducted over the last fortnight.
As many as 82% of workers that Swan spoke to said that they had not received any money from their employers since the lockdowns began last month. At least 32% of workers had not got their wages of previous months.
Sahni said even if he manages to find some work, people usually pay less. “My ice-cream factory owner has a flour mill too. ...he paid me ₹400 daily for selling ice creams.. after lockdown, he called me to his flour mill for loading and unloading of flour bags. This work was more difficult than the first, but hardly has he ever paid me more than 200 rupees daily.”
Dinesh Rathore, a construction worker in Delhi, said since the weekend curfew in April, he and his brother have lost all savings. “We have a few hundred rupees left which would hardly last till 10th of this month,” said Rathore. He added an NGO paid them ₹2,000. “We do not know what to do if the lockdown is extended here. Last year, the government had put us up at a school in Delhi and gave us food. This year, no one is helping. There is nothing to do at home. Many of us have now shifted to a single room to share the rent. The government should at least open up the schools like last year and give us food.”
Anandita Adhikari of Swan said while there are no travel restrictions and workers can go their homes, there are fears of a nationwide lockdown, which, if unplanned again, might lead to the repetition of what happened last year.
Mohammad Gulzar, 24, a migrant worker from Jharkhand who works in Goa, said even for a week before the lockdown was imposed, police would not allow them to go for work. “I along with a few more from my village left Goa three days back on a train. We did not want to go through what happened with us the last time. We did not even have anything to eat,” said Gulzar, who is the sole bread earner of his family.
PK Gupta, officer on special duty, Union labour ministry, said the government has set up 20 control rooms to address wage-related grievances of migrant workers and to mitigate their problems through coordination with state governments. “We have even shared personal numbers of our officers so that the migrant workers can directly call them to get their grievances resolved. Even, last year, when this crisis erupted as many as ₹295 crore of pending wages were paid to over 20,00,00 workers... People who need help should call and the best possible help shall be given to them.”
Ajay Tiwari, joint secretary, directorate general labour welfare, said they held a meeting with the states on Thursday over the issue. “Though at a few places, these workers are getting help in the form of food provisions by the states but today [Thursday] all the states have been directed to lend some financial assistance as well as ration support...”
Adhikari said the government should provide income support to these workers to ensure their families do not suffer. “They are usually away from their homes and do not have access to their ration cards. Thereby they cannot avail the subsidised food grains.”
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday said that the state will once again provide free ration for two months to ration card holders and also give financial aid of ₹5,000 to autorickshaw and taxi drivers in the city to help them tide over financial losses due to the lockdown in the city.
According to the Swan survey, over 70% of workers needed ration or cash support immediately. “While many of the workers living alone have returned to their villages, those with their families cannot... A direct income support in the form of wage compensation would at least help them sustain this crisis,” said Adhikari. She said the government should prioritise vaccination of these workers. Adhikari said if they are not vaccinated immediately, the virus of every strain will reach villages as the migrant workers frequently move from urban to rural areas.
“Before the state governments coordinate and arrange for the transportation of these workers, they should organise vaccination drives...” Adhikari also called for vaccine awareness campaigns as many migrant workers are hesitant to go for the vaccination.
Economist Karan Bhasin echoed Adhikari and said India cannot afford another mass migration. “...the central government should help them sustain rental and other expenses through direct income support...it is the responsibility of the state governments as well to reach out to them with help and prevent them from migrating to their villages.”