After weeks of cramming stranded migrant workers into overcrowded shelters, the Centre appears to have granted them a great concession – they can return to work as some industrial and agricultural activities are resumed from April 20. On April 19, the ministry of home affairs issued a new “Standard Operating Procedure for movement of Stranded Labour”. Those in shelters would have to register with local authorities, who will conduct “skill mapping” and allocate them suitable work. Those who wished to return to their places of work could be transported there after screening, but this “movement of labour” will only be allowed within state borders.
The order is chilling in language and content. It does not mention whether the stranded workers may return home, which many have desperately been trying to do over the past few weeks as India went into lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. It does not mention whether they have a choice in the matter of returning to work. It reduces thousands of individuals with lives and sorrows to the impersonal category of “labour”, a resource to be tapped as the economy is cranked back to life, to be distributed as efficiently as possible. But it should not come as a surprise from a government that has chosen to unsee them as it fights against the pandemic.
Consider the events of the last month. On March 23, the prime minister announced a complete nationwide lockdown at four hours’ notice. While the restrictions may have been necessary to contain the virus, it did not account for those who had no homes to shelter in. Moreover, the government appeared to have made no provisions for the thousands who lost work overnight, who depended on the day’s wages to buy themselves a meal.
A so-called relief package announced two days later was too little, too late. Not only was the size of the relief package pitiable, much of it depended on frontloading payments already budgeted for. It did not account for a vast swathe of workers in the informal sector and has since floundered in implementation.
As workers started walking hundreds of kilometres, many were intercepted and confined in facilities that in some areas were initially called “jails” and then hastily rechristened “shelters”. Hundreds remain confined in harrowing spaces with poor sanitation – not for them the precautions of social distancing and handwashing. Others lined up outside community kitchens for meals that were either too small or erratic.
The government has repeatedly ignored policy advice that could have alleviated these conditions – commit to a safety net for the vulnerable before lockdown measures are put in place, combine cash and kind transfers, make the public distribution system universal. Instead, the only policy reform under consideration is to tweak labour laws to allow 12 hour shifts instead of eight hours. Even though the proposed changes suggest they would be paid overtime wages, trade unions fear it will only institutionalise the practice of more work and less pay.
Apart from economic conditions, the government policy has failed to take into account the fears and desires of a large section of workers who want to return home, not to work. The shock of the lockdown has eroded their faith in the economic system and prompted them to reach for the relative security of home and family.
This is a government that views workers as objects of sparing charity at best, moveable parts who serve larger economic needs at worst. But the right to food, to health, to work, to choose what work you do or not work if you choose – these are justiciable rights, not concessions granted by government. It is a simple fact that seems beyond this government’s comprehension.