Human Rights in the Blues: India’s Migrant Workers

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

By Aryan Yashpal*

COVID19 cost a lot of people, a lot of things except their fundamental human rights. Urbane citizens have had no telling crises for the procurement of grain and food, rather India has seen a surge in tendencies to overstock rations in middle-class and upper-class households. India, in stark contrast has seen the migrant workers’ (shramiks, ‘labourers’ in Hindi and for most Government communication) human rights in the blues. Grim scenes of apathetic conditions, lack of basic resources and no shelter have been etched in the conscience of a grieving nation.

The migrants in India are the backbone of the infrastructure and construction industries. Their well-being and human rights are a necessity to keep Indian industry steady. On March 24, 2020, the Prime Minister of India announced a nation-wide lockdown. While, offices and industries hastily shut shop sine die; the migrants had nowhere to go. Shelter is sought on a rolling basis and they pay in most cases, either a daily or weekly tenancy for a room accommodating dozens  – chock-a-block. Since the lockdown was announced, these women and men scurried for the buses plying to either their native districts or, in most cases – their native states, far-flung from their place of work. The unfortunate ones who could not jostle their way through to buses and trains had to muster the courage of walking it; they were resolute in their cause of reaching home – their resolve of steel went to the tune of walking hundreds of kilometres. Sustaining the journey on-foot without water, food and money is a herculean task. The nation silently grieved the death of many innocent labourers who passed away on their journey home. A forty-year old sugarcane-cutter starved to death on his way home to a rural district from Pune. The statistic of 14-15 deaths, thrice a week, most unfortunately became the ‘usual’.

An abysmal narrative has been usurped by the failures of the governments of India and several states and the Supreme Court in acknowledging the woes of the labourers. The Government decided to implement a model of district-wise shelter homes where the district administration would be working in tandem to provide the labourers with adequate food and basic essentials. This failed to work since there is an unacknowledged number of undocumented migrants who sacrifice the better part of their lives for the daily wage.

The inability of the State is not due to an absence of legislation. The legislation exists but lacks existence in enforcement. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 is a statute that particularly pertains to the well-being and State-led maintenance and welfare of the workers. Critics have suggested that there is a dearth of laws to enable the welfare of the migrants – that is factually inaccurate. Indeed, there are laws to protect the rights of the working women and men, but there is a debilitating dearth of enforcement and initiative by the State. The statute in Chapter V mandates for remedies which strike at the penury of these hardworking folk.

The loopholes and policy compulsions concerning the magnitude of migrants were to be streamlined by The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019. The Code aims to strengthen the duties of the employer in order to ensure better working conditions for the migrants. The Standing Committee has suggested critical action to be taken by state governments and the Centre in tandem to ensure that the suffering is alleviated.

In the backdrop of COVID19, the sheer magnitude of the issue remains under appreciated by the state governments and the Centre, which is cause of concern. There have been numerous reports of lack of coordination among the administrations and departments which have led to the efforts of the Centre to failure. The Centre for its part has been irresponsible in the handling of the railways’ Shramik Express, a special train focussed at returning the migrants to their native states. Delays to the tune of eight-ten hours have been reported while the larger railway network remains suspended; the efficiency and punctuality should have seen a marked improvement due to the comparatively menial scale (per contra pre-national lockdown) at which the Indian Railways was operating. Two women in labour, gave birth aboard the trains; while one destitute lady migrant gave birth on the road, on her journey from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh and walked another hundred and fifty kilometres after the delivery.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand allowed the National Human Rights Commission to intervene at an inordinately later stage when the sun seemed to set down on the peak of this crisis. The intervention was allowed on June 5 while the flurry of activity and desperation was rife in May. The Court ordered the Centre and the states to ensure repatriation of migrants in a span of fifteen days while the railways were already functional. The inability of their Lordships to protect and further the cause of the innocent labourers has been rather disheartening.

One can implore the Government with all the conviction at command to ensure that the human rights of the backbone of the Indian economy – the migrants are brought out of the blues. The pink certainly awaits.

*Aryan is a B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at the National Law University, Jodhpur, India. He is interested in politics, international affairs, and corporate law.

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