By 9 April, India had witnessed 192 deaths due to reasons related to the COVID-19—not necessarily from the virus directly—according to media reports compiled on the website of Thejesh GN, a public-interest technologist. A significant number among these casualties were migrants who died while trying to get home in the week after the centre announced a countrywide lockdown to combat COVID-19. The announcement— which just gave a notice of four hours—had predictably left migrant workers, who were surviving on hand-to-mouth jobs, without food, transportation, medicines or even a roof over their heads. While these consequence could be foreseen at the time of the announcement, the government’s response to the crisis seemed like an afterthought.
It was only on the second day of the lockdown that the government announced a relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore for vulnerable sections of society. On the fifth day, the ministry of home affairs issued an order under the Disaster Management Act to state and union territory administrations to restrict movement of migrants. The ministry asked states to keep all migrant workers who were going home “in the nearest shelter … for a minimum period of 14 days as per standard health protocol.” In the rush to sweep them away from public glare, the administrations of Haryana and Chandigarh hurriedly decided to convert indoor stadiums into temporary prisons. Meanwhile in Uttar Pradesh, health officials sprayed industrial disinfectant on migrants workers. These blows were delivered with condolences—on 29 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi apologised to his “underprivileged brothers and sisters” in a radio address and said there had been “no other way” to contain COVID-19 but to place the country under a lockdown.
The home ministry’s order termed the movement of migrant workers as “a violation of the lockdown measures.” It also prohibited employers from deducting wages and declared evictions from rented housing as a penal offence during the lockdown period. These amounted to little more than an unenforced governmental advisory to employers and landlords, and several experts spoke about the need to do more in terms of providing relief. But rights-based provisions available for migrant workers remained unenforced.
These events fit the pattern in which we have engaged with migrant workers in the past. On the few occasions that the concerns of migrant workers have received public attention, they have been addressed either in terms of their share over the state’s dole, or as law-and-order problems which need to be dealt with firmly. The rights that migrant workers are entitled to, in accordance with the law, seldom make it to public discourse. This neglect of the legal framework for hiring migrant workers, at times, creates an illusion that the government is going above and beyond to provide for them.
There are about sixty-five million interstate migrant workers in India, according to estimates by Amitabh Kundu, a professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries. Living outside their states of origin, unable to go on leave or pay for a trip to the polling booth back home, their concerns have not received the political weightage warranted by the sheer strength of their numbers. For instance, while soldiers, government employees posted abroad and even non-resident Indians are eligible to vote by post, no such provision has been extended to migrant workers.
For many such migrants, as they cannot influence the electoral outcome of the ward of their workplace, political tribulations in their home states have much greater stakes. Yet, one is hard-pressed to find state governments debating the treatment meted out to interstate migrants in Parliament. This translates to the police having fewer reasons not to pick them up when pressurised to do so by their employers or fellow residents, the local corporator having no stake in their well-being and the major trade unions remaining largely disinterested in organising them. The place of toilers in the socio-economic hierarchy denies them the opportunity to pursue other alternatives to voting to make their voice heard—such as taking to social media, approaching those is power with more ease—as available to wealthier counterparts. By both formal and substantive markers, this crude denial of franchise to a bulk of the country’s residents raises several questions about the nature of Indian federalism and democracy.