Over 150 academicians, including ICTS-TIFR Professor Suvrat Raju and UMass Amherst Professor Jayati Ghosh, advocated for migrant workers’ demands for transport, wages, and accommodation in a statement addressed to the central government.
“We, the undersigned, strongly condemn the apathy shown by central and state governments with regard to the cause of toiling people of India, including millions of migrant workers, and urge them to take into account [the following points] before making hasty and callous decisions on lockdowns,” said the group members.
The group demanded the earliest introduction of special trains for migrant workers across different states and increased government buses to facilitate ease of travel for migrant workers, in light of 2020’s administrative failings. Despite the lack of restrictions on inter-state travel, the unavailability of train tickets has left many workers stranded. Additionally, private bus tickets are being sold at exorbitant rates.
Members like Alok Laddha argued that every state government must ensure that monthly wages prior to the lockdown are paid in full and that stranded workers continue to be paid as long as lockdown continues.
Similarly, state governments and industries must arrange for accommodation of those workers who will be or have been left unemployed due to lockdown and closure of factories. Officials must make every basti aware about the seriousness of the disease and provide free vaccines to all, including out-of-state migrants.
“MGNREGA is likely to be a lifesaver for the rural economy in the coming months and we urge the government to immediately increase MGNREGA spending and clear all the previous dues to the state governments. Without this, a large section of the rural population will face indebtedness and starvation,” said the statement.
Experts also demanded that Public Distribution System (PDS) rations should be made available to all the citizens in need, irrespective of their state of residence and possession of identification documents.
Raju, Ghosh and others agreed that much like last year, informal workers have been left to fend for themselves in 2020. A second lockdown-induced migration is underway, with workers in Maharashtra, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and many other areas trying to return to their hometowns.
“It is clear that no lessons have been learned over this past year, and the same mistakes are being repeated by those in power. The Government of India has been woefully underprepared for the second wave of Covid-19. The resulting misgovernance is precipitating the announcement of partial or total lockdowns in various states to break the chain of infections,” it said.
Elaborating on last year’s failures, the members said the government disappointed in three respects:
- free, accessible transport in time for migrant workers which led to a mass exodus on foot in the harsh Indian summer costing many lives;
- policies that were to support workers such as MGNREGA, PDS and direct cash transfer scheme PMGKY;
- the government’s subsequent decision to open-up the country when the first wave was peaking resulting in a mass re-exodus, rendering its own viewpoint on the lockdown void.
The subsequent “amendments to the labour laws” put them at the mercy of their employers thus endangering the already socially and financially insecure migrant workforce.
In 2021, the situation is even more grim as the disease has well and truly spread over rural areas. Reverse migration of workers from cities will put an incomprehensible burden on the rural economy and healthcare facilities which, as reports from states like Bihar indicate, are already on the verge of collapse