Delusional to think we can build New India without migrant workers

The builders of shopping malls, five-star hotels, highways, metros are out on the streets, jobless

A month and half after lockdown was declared, the migrant workers stranded in different states have finally started moving to their home towns. One such migrant worker going home showed his palms and said that he was returning empty-handed. “I dont have money to buy anything for my five-year old daughter, nothing for my son, my wife and parents who are anxiously waiting for me.” Almost all migrant workers have the same story. Hunger and weariness are their only possessions.

The economic health of the country is in dire straits, and migrant workers cannot be replaced. It is they who have made the huge towers, shopping malls, residential colonies, five-star hotels, highways, metro railways, flyovers, multinational industrial complexes. It’s hours and hours of their labour that is behind the majority of the products produced in industries and enterprises.

Can we imagine an India without the migrant workers, are they not a part of our nation-building? The PM was very happy and proud in calling the Indian corporates as the wealth creators of our country. In real terms, who are the wealth creators? Is it not the workers of our country? And the migrant workers are a major part of that. But state after state are treating them callously.

The city of Surat in Gujarat has almost 15 lakh migrant labourers working in the textile mills alone. The government shamelessly collected ticket fare, superfast charge, plus expenses for food and water from them. After a lot of opposition, the central government transferred the responsibility of migrant travel onto the state governments which are already in debt. To add insult to injury, Navsari MP C R Patel flagged off the train taking the migrants home by waving a BJP party flag. What is this if not dirty politics even during a pandemic of unprecedented proportions?

A large number of migrant workers who were engaged in the construction industry, farming, agriculture and in MSMEs have lost their livelihood. Their number is estimated to be more than 11 crores. The owners of the MSMEs are worried that after the lockdown is lifted, they will not be able to run the industry, even if they want to do so, without the trained labour force. They are all either in camps or have gone back to their villages having had the worst experience of their lives. There is no guarantee that they will come back to work.

During the period of lockdown, a number of workers died, many committed suicide and, in some places they were lathi-charged, sprayed with dangerous chemicals in the name of sanitization. They were denied entry into their own villages and states. These migrant workers from socially and economically downtrodden communities left their villages to find work but have been treated inhumanely.

In Kerala, these workers are called Guest Workers. Kerala state under the Left Democratic Front government has given care to them by providing them shelter and food supplies. But in other states they are being denied entry back home. It is these migrant workers, who are masons, carpenters, tile workers, painters, plumbers, drivers, delivery boys, farm workers, agriculture worker, sanitation workers and what not, but they remained as an unrecognized lot

Majority of them don’t have a room of their own to stay. They build the modern towns and cities but they remain in slums, roadsides and platforms or in the temporary tin-roofed sheds in the work site with no sanitation, hygienic toilets and potable water etc. Some don’t have identity proof, they don’t have votes and hence do not participate in the election process. Many stay alone and their families are left in the villages—the mobile phone is the only thing that connects them.

They are gig workers, on-call workers, temporary workers, on-demand workers etc. They always remained a neglected lot. India as a country cannot grow without the contribution of these migrant workers. Therefore the Covid-19 bitter experience tries to tell the country to understand their needs—social, economic, political, psychological and other needs.

If the Industries want the migrant workers to come back with confidence, then they should provide proper accommodation, identity cards, temporary ration cards, ensure minimum wages, overtime wages and travel allowance. Universal social security system, which can ensure safety, security and dignity to them should be in place. Medical facilities, applicability of all labour laws, grievance redressal mechanism. The government should act now to help those who are the builders of modern India.

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