It hasn’t been a fortnight since Dhanapal Naik, 45, a migrant labourer from Andhra Pradesh, died in a mishap at Kaloor, Kochi. Dhanapal Naik, Sivaji, and Vengur Sami were cleaning up a drain as part of the Operation Breakthrough project set up to deal with the waterlogging issues of Kochi. A concrete slab fell over the three, and Naik got fully trapped under the slab.
Through a nearly two and a half hour long rescue process, Sivaji and Vengur Sami were saved with injuries. The Fire and Safety personnel, who were quick to act, reported a clear violation of safety rules in the workplace. The workers weren’t given helmets either. As Dhanapal Naik’s death goes down in Police files as yet another case of ‘unnatural death’, with vague promises of probing further, there is much to be bothered about. Have the rights and lives of interstate migrant workers become more vulnerable than in the pre-Covid days?
Covid 19 and after: Blatant violation of rights
The vulnerability of interstate migrant workers in India became most apparent during the first wave of the Covid 19. People died walking to hometowns, got run over by trains, and lakhs were left to choose between starvation or getting infected with the pandemic. A fifteen year old Jyothi Paswan who cycled with her sick father behind, to their hometown nearly 1200 Kms away revealed the extent to which the Indian episode of Covid had also been a management crisis. As disheartening scenes of migrant exodus captured global attention, a fifteen-year-old Jyothi Paswan stunned the world by cycling to her hometown nearly 1200 Kms away. With her sick father safe on the back seat, she rode over multiple hurdles, including Covid management lapses.
In a way, the nation-wide ‘lockdown’ that set forth about 12 million of its citizens on an exodus flagged that the millions’ political subjectivity is in peril. The Labour Ministry’s embarrassing take in Lok Sabha in September 2020 that the government did not have any data on migrant job loss or death due to the pandemic also reflected the same. Sandwiched between the data crisis and a lack of political will to protect the workers, there occurs blatant violation of workers’ human rights. The breach of workplace rights of the migrant labourers, especially of those occupied in the construction sector, is massive. The project report submitted to NHRC on the Human Rights Issues of Migrant Workers in Kerala reveals that one-fourth of the migrant workers in the state face regular harassment from supervisors at worksites. Nearly three fourth of them stay at the workplace, and the remaining live in overcrowded rooms, and the lack of toilets is a significant difficulty. About 68% of them have met with accidents or have work-related illnesses (Jomon Mathew, 2014). This is despite Kerala being among the states providing the best treatment to migrant workers.
Right to health, housing and hygiene, Rights of migrant children and children of migrant labourers to education, Right against exploitation, and Right to a dignified life are among the most violated rights of migrant workers. Most importantly, their voting rights get denied as there exists no mechanism along the lines of postal voting for the migrant workers. Denial of voting rights in an electoral setting is alarming as it is the road towards nothing less than the political invisibility of millions of India’s workforce.
Lack of data and lack of a comprehensive policy: Looping into political invisibility
The plight of inter-state migrant workers remains deeply disturbing despite their crucial role in building India’s economy. Though living through data driven times, there is a lack of clarity regarding the actual number of migrant workers in the country or those affected by the pandemic. Approximately, the migrant labourers in India number over 100 million, constituting nearly one-fifth of the total workforce in the country. They constitute nearly one-fifth of the 100 million workforces in India (Al Jazeera).
Amitabh Kundu, Distinguished Fellow at the Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries, estimates that about 12 million interstate migrants occupying informal sectors plus 8 million street vendors were at risk of losing jobs due to Covid, as early as in April 2020. The Labour ministry, in their reply at the Parliament, noted that more than 11.4 million workers went back to their home states amidst the pandemic. Despite their numerical and economic significance, it is appalling that there was no exact database of their numbers, nor was an efficient system of migrant worker registration in place, even before the pandemic days. The lack of registration implies inability to access the welfare schemes in place. This easily escalates into the invisibility of migrant workers as a group endowed to workplace and other rights and feed into the issue of not having a framework for adequate protection of the worker’s rights at the policy level.
The lack of a comprehensive perspective on interstate migrant workers in India caught global attention amidst the Covid crisis. A sad expression of this was seen in the government’s inability to foresee the chaos that imposing a lockdown overnight might have on millions of its citizens. As migrant deaths and their loss of livelihood got greater visibility, the Labour Ministry stated that they do not have the exact data on the migrant deaths in Shramik special trains. In an interesting turn, it was brought out that the government did have data though it initially claimed otherwise. Thus, what is more worrying is how the data crisis could translate into the denial of workers’ entitlements.
Becoming the ‘other’: Strains of social invisibility
In search of better standards of life, labour migration is not just a matter of personal aspirations for better quality of life, but also crucial to an economy’s growth. This has been agreed upon by international agencies, including the UN. Yet, the ‘othering’ experienced by the interstate migrants working in the unorganised sector is more real than apparent. Othering is about placing a group of people as inferior, distant and different from the mainstream. When it comes to those working in formal sectors, more often than not, their migration becomes interesting accounts of cultural exchange. But when it comes to the informal sector workers, they are easily looked down as an alien bunch of people, forming the ‘other’. Their culture and backgrounds aren’t generally asked about, nor are zones of cultural exchange sought for. Their identity is generally all tied around their labour capacity than around their personality.
Beyond the class factor, caste and gender violations are as well embedded in the migrant crisis. The vulnerabilities overlap, as of the 395 million intra-state migrants in India, 62 million are estimated to be Dalits and 31 million Adivasis. (Indian Express) Violation of women workers’ rights take different ranges from no equal pay for equal work, to sexual abuses. Further, migrant workers are the most vulnerable in being implicated in false accusations. Sadly, mainstream media often portray a distorted picture of migrant workers, associating them with criminal traits. ‘Visaranai,’ a Tamil language film directed by Vetrimaran, India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in 2014, is among the few onscreen depictions that captured the cold and terrific levels of abuse that they are susceptible to—placing them as the alien other makes it easy for the mainstream public to ignore the violation of their rights. The overlapping of political invisibility and social invisibility thus makes the scenario worse.
Yet, the Covid times also witnessed the migrant crisis getting a greater voice than before. The Ministry of Labour and Employment has proposed to develop a National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW), involving the registration of Building and other Construction Workers and Migrant workers. (PIB 17/03/2021) Upholding education as the fundamental right of the migrant children, even amidst the pandemic, the Supreme Court had ordered the states to inform it regarding the efforts taken towards the children’s protection and education in April 2021.
Further, in June 2021, the Supreme Court had set July 31st as the deadline for states to implement the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ system and for the Centre to create a national database of unorganised workers. The crux of the One Nation One Ration Card system was to ensure that the workers don’t go hungry as their ration cards would entitle them to get the supplies from any Fair Price Shop across the country. Most hopeful among the campaigns led for migrant workers had been the one taken up by civil rights organisations for their postal voting rights in the wake of state assembly polls in July 2020. Though their demand wasn’t met, the spirit of the campaign and the visibility it acquired in the public domain are promising.
But whether any of these would help in empowering the migrant labourers remains doubtful. There are confusions over the apparatus to implement the schemes, especially in the making of the database. Further, as Covid has left us with deep scars of job loss and lack of income, protecting the workers who could be more easily exploited at the workplace has become a bigger concern than before. Simply put, the death of Dhanpal Naik seems much beyond merely an “unnatural” one, and more towards a constituted one, as it also hints towards the reduced stake of migrant workers in the post-Covid market that make them take up dangerous jobs, even in the absence of workplace safety precautions. The Kerala High Court has given hope and ordered further investigation into the incident, but what is worrying is that interventions of this kind are more an exception than the norm.