“Covid-19”; Labour Migration: Challenges Ahead for India

INTRODUCTION

CoVid-19 is not merely an uprising disease but has been declared by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. The term lockdown in the current situation of CoVid-19 was well incorporated under the section 10(2) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 that lays down guidelines for preparing disaster management plans. Due to this pandemic certain fundamental rights and human rights, i.e., article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had to be suspended, to preserve human life. Due to restriction in movement several contracts which do not come under the ambit of essential contracts, were greatly affected. The most affected section by this lockdown was the migrant workforce.

DIFFICULTIES FACED BY THESE MIGRANT LABOURERS

Due to insufficient supply of food and wages, the labour class is forced to leave city states and move back to their native places. Moreover, the urge to reach back home due to unemployment was of such high intensity, that the Company heads (thekedar) ensured their travel expense at the cost of their pending wages of nearly 2-3 months. Thus, some had to leave their work, while others worked without receiving the actual salary, they were bound to receive. Further, to add on to their misery, in lieu of lockdown and constraints on movement of vehicles or any public transport, these unfortunate poverty-stricken citizens have to walk miles bare feet to reach to their destination. For these people death due to coronavirus is secondary, what haunts them is demise of a ménage due to hunger. Denial of medical care, starvation, police brutality, exhaustion and suicide are major reasons of non-coronavirus migrant deaths. Several, including a seven-month pregnant migrant dies during the journey, while some had to deliver their babies on the highway. Isn’t this injustice due to inequality? Isn’t right to life- a fundamental right insured to all the citizens? The reason of this injustice is that privileged, government and media have turned a blind eye on them. And, with the overruling of the ADM, Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla(1976) 2 SCC 521; AIR 1976 SC 1207 case by the Justice K. S. Puttuswamy and Anr. vs Union of India And Ors WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO 494 OF 2012 case, the interpretation of Article 21 expanded and the court announced that right to life and dignity cannot be suspended without authority of law. The judgement ensured that article 21 is sacroscent, inviable and cannot be suspended in any time without authority of law. These are rights existing in absolute terms, therefore, refusal of grant of such rights to migrant labours in unjust and unconstitutional. The migrant labours

Undoubtedly, the country is facing many challenges due to this unprecedent situation, but worsening the condition of poor migrants, when all they can do is – hope the government will help them, is morally erroneous and delinquent. The Karnataka train halt was one such incident, where overnight the Chief Minister without conveying any reason, decided that no more inter state trains were required [https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/karnataka-says-no-more-trains-for-migrants/article31513691.ece]. This was direct menace by the authorities to the fundamental rights of the migrant labours. Now the question that arises is whether this suspension of free movement a requirement during this pandemic? The answer surely is yes, but what could have happened overnight that the CM had to cancel the bookings he had already made for more trains. This was a pure economical strategy. After a meeting with the builders it was noticed that on migration of the labourers, the builders will be forced to find new labourers and due to high demand and low supply of labourers, the builders will have to pay more wages, which could further affect the economy. This is modern slavery. Another such case is of the protest against suspension of labour laws. Due to labour migration, areas with high labour population will be forced to work at any wage so that they could support their families. Now, when the labour would be deprived of their basic rights, including maternity benefit act, contract labour act, minimum wage act, employee state insurance act, bonus act, etc. won’t this amount to bonded labour/ slavery, where these slaves could be terminated at any time. Article 23 of the Indian constitution reads that labour without welfare measures constitutes ‘forced labour’. Moreover, certain slum areas have been removed without providing these homeless, vulnerable poor people any shelter. Government is concerned only about the economy and not about the lives of its poor citizens. Government need to take steps to protect these marginalised migrant groups or else it would be failing in its role.

Also, after the pandemic is over, when things become right again, many changes and opportunities would be seen. This epidemic has made evident that how help, unity and brotherhood can work to save lives. A rise from communalism and religion towards patriotism and brotherhood will be seen. Economy and industries will get an opportunity to flourish and grow, as high employment rate will directly result in high national income. But for this liberty, responsibility and authority need to be balanced, rights to the migrant labour should be given and establishment of an equal and just society is required.  Right to food, liberty, and life need to be ensured to each citizen. Minimal what government was supposed to do was to provide these labour migrants proper food and proper means so that even they could live peacefully in their houses with their families. However, even after taking certain measures like making available free wheat and grains to these groups, only a few of them were able to avail these facilities. Others, were either told that the food (rashan) was already distributed or were unaware of these schemes.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic was so sudden that there was no time to make or implement proper laws. Thus, blaming the government entirely for its unsatisfactory planning won’t be just. However, learning from the experience the government ought to make provisions for these classes in such a manner that neither the national economy nor the lives of these migrant labours are sacrificed.

AUTHOR: Pritika Negi, Research Board Member.

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