Modi Government announced early  Lockdown to save the country from Covid- 19. The whole world applauded his timely action. The limited number of infected people & low mortality in our country as compared to the Western world speaks volumes of the timely imposition of lockdown and remedial measures undertaken by our government. But in haste of imposing lockdown the problem of migratory labour was neither timely conceived nor addressed by the government and this attracted a lot of criticism from the opposition political parties, thinkers & media calling it callous irresponsible, insensible &  unresponsive. The migrant labour crisis during the lockdown has blown out of the proportion in as much as the apex court had agreed to suo motto hear the case involving the migrant labour crisis.

A conservative estimate of workers in our country is estimated 140 million. Out of this stupendous number, atleast 40% are migrant workers, who became restless to reach their native places in the time of Covid pandemic. Their intention to reach their own homes was so severe that they decided to walk on the highways with their families without adequate food and water because the trains and buses were cancelled abruptly. The live photos of the mothers cuddling the infants and carrying them on their shoulders was highly disturbing. It is not out of place to mention that hundreds of migratory labour met untimely death while plodding on the roads. 16 fatigued  migrant workers returning home to Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra fell asleep on the railway tracks and were crushed to death by a goods train on May 8. A number of migrant workers died when the unauthorised trucks/ vehicles carrying them overturned at many places.

The collective controlling, policing, forced collective sanitising and wilful policy neglect has so far characterised the plight of stranded workers. The announced relief packages were too little and too late. Today, the fact that even after more than 75 days of the lockdown, the migrants are determined to go back to their village/towns and in the process meet hunger & death amply proves the failure of governance.

While the individual decisions of the migrant workers to undertake long journeys on foot were borne out of desperation,  their refusal to stay where they were, exposed the link between labour and work security. This also revealed the absence of provision for social security. While walking to their homes, they brought hunger, food and the faulty and leaky system of food distribution into prominence. These ‘reverse migrations’ are simply long journeys undertaken by them to avoid hunger in the city.

The Supreme Court showed extraordinary concern for the migratory labour. It heard the matter at length. During the course of arguments, the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta informed the court that more than five million migrants returned homes in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh by Shramik trains. Around four million migrant workers reached their desired destinations through road transport. However, this number is too little in comparison to actual number of migrant labour willing to return to their native places. On the other hand,  senior advocate A.M. Singhvi said news reports showed that a total of 80 individuals lost their lives while travelling on the Shramik Specials. Further, media reports again said a total of 644 migrant labourers died in the lockdown. “Absence of data on the actual number of migrant labourers aggravates these calamities by leaving the administering agencies, under-prepared to deal with the challenges,” Mr. Singhvi had argued.

After detailed hearing, the Supreme Court on June 9, 2020 passed orders  in the matter and  directed all states and Union Territories (UT) to “consider withdrawal of prosecution and complaints” under Section 51 of Disaster Management Act lodged against some migrant labourers. The migrant workers in question are alleged to have “violated novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown measures enforced under Disaster Management Act, 2005 by moving on roads.”

The apex court directed the states & union territories to identify stranded migrant workers in their territory who are desirous of returning home & to take adequate steps for the return journey of the stranded migrant workers by train / bus. This has to be processed within 15 days.

The Court also ruled that railways should provide Shramik trains within a period of 24 hours to facilitate their return journey. The central government has also been directed to give details of all schemes that could be availed by migrant workers who have returned to their native places.

A three-judge bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah issued the directions days after passing a series of directions, asking state governments not to charge migrant labourers for their train or bus journeys and asked states to arrange for their food and water. The Supreme Court further said that migrant workers who want to go back to their workplaces must be given counselling to deal with the new challenges.

It is earnestly hoped that the government would rise to the needs of the hour and  abide by the directions issued by the Apex court expeditiously in the interest of the stranded labour workforce to instill confidence in them because the country shall be needing them back, for strengthening our economy, in our workplaces once the pandemic subsides.

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April 2021