From the midnight of March 2020, India went into what has been rated as the most stringent lockdowns of physical movement and economic activity in the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Three weeks later, a survey of 11,159 migrant workers by the Stranded Workers Action Network or SWAN, reported also by The Hindu, opened a troubling window to the intense distress of migrant workers stranded by the lockdown.

The survey revealed an intense and urgent hunger crisis. Fifty per cent of the workers had rations left for less than one day. Seventy two per cent of the people the team spoke to said that their rations would finish in two days. Because they had little or no cash in hand and were continuously beset by uncertainty about the next meal, many had been eating frugally. A group of 240 workers in Bengaluru told SWAN, “We are eating only one meal a day to conserve the quantum of grain we have.”

There were several cases where people were already on the brink of starvation. Sujit Kumar, a worker from Bihar stranded in Bhatinda, Punjab, had not eaten in four days when our volunteer spoke with him on April 3. Yasmeen, a tenth standard student in Noida said, “We have four babies in the house for whom we need milk; we have been feeding them sugar water these days.”

Long lines

Ninety six per cent had not received rations from the government and 70% had not received any cooked food from any source. Suresh who is from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, was a construction worker in Delhi, and had been able to access cooked food at a government feeding centre on a few occasions. But he said, “The lines are long and food runs out by the time it is our turn.”

Dil Mohammed, who worked as a driver, said he went to a feeding centre and stood in line for four hours for his two children but at the end was only given four bananas because the centre had run out of food.

Along with food, cash had almost run out for most of the workers. Seventy eight per cent of people had less than Rs 300 left with them. About 70% were left with less than Rs 200 (less than half a single day’s wage) for the remaining lockdown period. Afsana Khatoon from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, stranded in Hyderabad, said, “I have a one-year old daughter and a mentally depressed husband. I need to buy medicines for them but I don’t have any cash.”

Around 98% had not received any cash relief from the government. Eighty nine per cent have not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. About 9% have been partially paid. Some who have been given rations by the employers have been told that the money for the rations will be deducted. Some workers have also been threatened not to complain.

Workers in Surat wait for food being served by a voluntary organisation. Credit: PTI

High precarity

Into the second phase of the lockdown, a further report from SWAN showed that precarity remained high. Fifty per cent of workers had rations left for less than one day. Forty six per cent reported being with no food or money. More than four out of five persons had still not received rations in the second phase. Sixty four per cent had less than Rs 100 left while 74% continue to have less than half their daily wages remaining to survive for the rest of the lockdown period.

Only 6% have been fully paid during the lockdown period and 16% have been partially paid. Seventy eight per cent have not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. Eighty nine per cent had not been paid at all in the first phase. Ninety nine per cent of the self-employed have had no income during the lockdown period.

Forty one per cent said they would stay in the city because they were anxious about unpaid rent, loans and had no cash to travel or survive even at home. One-third planned to continue in the same line of work or with the same employer, another one-third are unsure about what to do. Roughly 16% plan to leave and then return after some time, and about 13% plan to find work back in their hometown and about 5% want to earn some money and leave.

Distressed by the indignity meted out to the migrant workers, a particularly anguished migrant labourer from Jharkhand working in Mumbai said “Modi ki nazron mein hum keedein hi hain na, waisi maut marenge.” We are after all insects in the eyes of Modi so we will have to die that kind of death.

A worker and his daughter at a shelter in Chennai. Credit: Arun Sankar / AFP

A week into the lockdown, lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Cheryl D’Souza filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court, seeking the upholding of the right to life with dignity under Article 19 of the Constitution for the migrants who were badly hit by the sudden and severe lockdown. The petitioners were Anjali Bhardwaj and this writer.

The petition pointed to the intense humanitarian crisis created by the lockdown. Its central demand was that the central and state must “jointly and severally” ensure payment of minimum wages to all migrant workers within a week, for the entire period of the lockdown. This should be agnostic to whether they were employed in an establishment, engaged by contractors or self-employed. The petition also demanded that this must be done by self-attestation and self-identification, because the state has no comprehensive record of employed workers, let alone casual and self-employed workers.

Inadequate response

The petition detailed what it saw as grave flaws and inadequacies of the Union government’s response. The Union government reported to the Supreme Court that it had announced a financial package of Rs. 1.70 lakh crores. The petitioners replied that the package, just over 1% of GDP, was entirely inadequate to deal with the crisis.

Further, many elements of the scheme are merely front-loading instalments of existing schemes, such as a daily wage increase under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme or emergency support through the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Cess funds. The 5 kg of grain and 1 kg of pulses would not reach a large section of migrant workers, as the Public Distribution System is a domicile-based entitlement that requires proof of permanent address.

The ex-gratia payment of Rs 500 to 20.4 crore women with Jan Dhan accounts was extremely inadequate, both in terms of quantum and its inclusion only of those with functional accounts. A rapid survey by Jansahas with 3,196 migrant construction workers from North and Central India found that 94% of its respondents do not have Building and Other Construction Worker cards

‘Daily needs being met’

The Union government claimed overall that its financial package took care of the daily needs of every poor person, which include migrant workers and their families, there was no imperative for migrant workers to rush to their villages. Their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were working, and the needs of their families were being taken care of in the villages. It added that the Central government had directed states to provide food, shelter and medical facilities to migrant workers who have been quarantined en route to their places of origin.

The petitioners contested this as well, stating that the figures of the number of active relief camps and shelters for migrant workers submitted by the government themselves laid bare the complete inadequacy of the official provisions made for migrants. The government informed the Supreme Court there are 26,476 active Relief Camps and Shelters in which 10,37,027 persons are housed. Kerala alone accounts for 59% of the relief camps and shelters. Haryana and Delhi accounted for 51% of the 15 lakh people reported to being given food.

Estimates of migrant workers in India range from 4 crore to 12 crore and therefore, even if the lower end of the estimate is used, 25 lakh workers in shelter and given food account for only 6% of the migrant labour force.

Workers in Chennai wait for food. Credit: AFP

The petition also spoke of problems with the order of March 29 of the Union government, under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which directed all public and private employers to continue to pay workers their wages through the period of the lockdown. It also prescribed that landlords should not seek a rent from workers during the lockdown.

The petitioners argued that the two main protections for migrant workers during lockdown contained in the March 29 order in effect shifted the entire burden of protecting the earnings of migrant workers and preventing their eviction because they were unable to pay their rents away from the state to the shoulders of employers and landlords. The order instituted no mechanism to secure the implementation of this order, nor for redress when it was flouted.

Further, this order makes no provision for the financial security of the large proportion of migrant workers who are self-employed and are therefore not paid any salaries, such as street vendors, rickshaw pullers, dhobis, petty service providers, ragpickers, and sex workers. It also ignores completely one of the most vulnerable segments of the labour market, namely casual daily wage workers. Studies show that only 17% of workers in the informal sector have identifiable employers. The earnings of the remaining 83% would not be protected even if every employer obeyed the March 29 order.

Denied dignity

In the course of the hearing on April 7, the Chief Justice asked that since the workers were being provided meals, why would they need money?

The bench stated that in times of such crisis, it did not want to interfere with government decisions. On complaints raised by lawyer Prashant Bhushan about inedible food in crowded shelters or the lack of access to food at the feeding centres opened by the government, the court dismissed this stating that it would ask the government to put in place a helpline for complaints.

In the final hearing, a newly constituted bench (therefore not fully versed with the petitioners’ submissions in the previous hearings) very briefly heard the case. In this hearing, the petitioners additionally placed on the record of the Supreme Court the study by SWAN. The court however was still not persuaded by the grim picture of distress, destitution and hunger which, the lawyer stated, was mounting dangerously with every day of the court hearings. The bench said it could not rely on studies by private bodies when the government portrayed a completely different picture.

With this, they chose to finally close the case, without giving any relief to the migrants during the lockdown. The final order simply read: “We call upon the respondent-Union of India to look into such material and take such steps as it finds fit to resolve the issues raised in the petition.”

For millions of migrant workers stranded in cities without work and food in the lockdown, confined to overcrowded and underserved shelters, standing in long lines for every meal, walking hundreds of miles with the single aspiration in this uncertain time of suffering and crisis to be with their families, uncertain about how they will ensure food and medicine for their children and parents, the prospect of a life with dignity became even more remote.

I am grateful for generous research support from Cheryl D’Souza and Misbah Rashid. A longer version of this article is also being published by The Forum India.

Harsh Mander is an activist who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, as well as homeless persons and street children. He is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and was a Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case.