Exodus after lockdown: Over 10 crore workers hit; Govt has no idea of the scale of problem, say TUs, NGOs

AM Jigeesh New Delhi | Updated on March 30, 2020

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Trade unions and voluntary organisations, who are working on the ground to help migrant workers in the unorganised sectors, paint a grim picture of the reality with nearly a week into the national lockdown to check the spread of Covid 19. They claim that about 10 crore people are affected by the lockdown and are facing difficulties in getting foodgrains and other essential materials.

The RSS-affiliate trade union BMS’s national president Saji Narayanan said he has sent yet another letter to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman demanding specific assistance to migrant workers. “They must be given foodgrains immediately. The Centre should also release some money into their accounts.”

He said BMS and another Sangh outfit Sewa Bharti are running community kitchens in various parts of the country.

“In Delhi alone, we are giving food to about 40,000 people. In other parts the number will go beyond lakhs,” BMS leader Pawan Kumar said.

CITU Delhi state general secretary Anurag Saxena, who has been in field helping the migrants, said the Governments did not have any estimate of the number of migrant workers in Delhi-NCR. “Most of them were casual and daily-wage labourers earning a small amount as salary. For example, in Gandhi Nagar, most of the casual labourers were working in stitching units either for daily wages or piece-rate. The State Government asked the employers to take care of their employees. But the employers did not do this. Thousands of such workers are stranded in East Delhi. In some other parts, rickshaw pullers are stranded. They are from West Bengal, Kashmir and Bihar or eastern parts of the country,” he said.

Saxena said those who are from Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan, started walking back to their homes or going back somehow. “Around 2-3 lakh have left from East Delhi only. The number of workers from other parts of Delhi and districts like Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddh Nagar (Noida) will be much more. Government is trying to do works at its own level. But a lot of things have to be done,” he said.

The trade unions say that the non-implementation of the Unorganised Sector Workers Act of 2012 and without Social security boards established as per the Act the governments have no data on the number of unorganised workers who do not have a clear relationship with their employers. “Around 40 lakh workers are in Delhi who are hungry for three days. In NCR, there are 23 districts and about 60 lakh workers face a similar situation. CITU gave a call for fund collection. We are distributing dry food. We are not running a kitchen. But some other organisations are running kitchens. We are giving a week’s ration for a family,” he said.

Social activist Harsh Mander, who has formed a group of concerned citizens to coordinate providing services to migrant workers, said more than 10 crore workers are facing problems. “The numbers of such migrant workers might even exceed than the movement of people during partition,” he said.

In Delhi, he said, most of the people his organisation contacted, are destitute workers. “They are stuck here. They don’t have families to go back to. Many of them are out on the streets. They are at high risk, vulnerable to diseases and starvation. In Delhi, it will be more than one crore people who are affected by the lockdown. They do not have a regular income. The government offered some money and five kilos of foodgrains. But that is not enough,” he said.

Mander added that the urban poverty estimates given by the governments have no touch with reality. “We gave a very minimalist definition for poverty. Over 25-30 per cent of the unorganised workers might be earning ₹500-600 per day, but they did not come under the poverty line as per the government parameter. There is nothing short if the government wants to provide foodgrains and other essential supplies to the migrant workers. Germany has set aside 20 per cent of the GDP for its workers. Prime Minister should have said they will get a minimum wages even if they stay at home. Nothing short of it will help,” he said.

“Government responsibility is completely missing. They want the employers to take care of their workers. The exodus is still continuing. Private vehicles are charging ₹1,000 for people to sit on the roof and ₹2,000 for a place inside a bus, which is completely packed. This is a humanitarian crisis. People have to survive,” he said.

Leader of Construction Workers Federation of India Debanjan Chkrabarti said the organisations’ helpline gets hundreds of calls every day. “Kerala Government is doing a good job. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Governments are also helping workers. Karnataka has also made some arrangements. But in Tamil Nadu, the State government has not done any adequate arrangements. It is our union, which is helping the construction workers. In Goa, 6,000 painters are stranded and we have urged the Goa Government to help these migrant workers. In Uttar Pradesh too, the Government is not visible and it is the trade union workers who are helping migrant workers. In Delhi, the situation has improved after repeated intervention from Left parties’ leaders. In each and every State, our union is giving thousands of workers relief in the form of dry food, sanitisers and masks. They have lost their wages. The Centre is not doing anything. Labour officers tell us they will be able to release the welfare funds to workers only when the offices are open after the lockdown,” he said.

Published on March 30, 2020

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