Ever since the nation went into lockdown from March 25 due to Covid-19, stranded migrant workers in most parts of the country have been living on meagre supplies of food, even going without eating for several days, as they have little or no cash to buy rations and other essentials, including medicines.

These people are in distress as the relief measures announced by the government on March 26 are inadequate and taking a long time reaching them. That is mostly the reason for the protests seen in many parts of the country over the past few days.

Consider, the plight of Rambali Ram and another family working for an aluminium smelting plant in Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. While they got five kg of wheat from a local organisation, they have no cash to grind it into flour or to buy essentials like salt and oil.

Sajid Ansari, who works in Mumbai, has been able to access cooked food from community kitchens on some days but the food made his children sick. He would prefer money to buy rations and cook meals. But getting access to community kitchens is not easy. Bhagyalakshmi, a widow from Tamil Nadu with three children, stranded in Bengaluru, finds the Indira Canteen extremely crowded.

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Suresh, a construction worker from Bihar living in Delhi, faces a similar plight — the lines at the government feeding centres are long and food runs out by the time it is his family’s turn. Dil Mohammed, who works as a driver, stood in line for four hours at a feeding centre to get food for his two children but got only four bananas as the centre had run out of food.

It is not just workers who are feeling the crunch. Salim Sheikh, a small-time contractor in Solapur, Maharashtra, managed to arrange foodgrains for 50 workers but had no money to pay wages as his business has taken a severe hit.

Findings of study

These are just a few heart rendering stories captured in a study by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of 73 volunteers comprising academics, activists and students, who spoke to 640 groups of stranded migrant workers adding to 11,159 individuals between March 27 and April 13.

The study estimates that about 12 crore people have been affected by the livelihood crisis and there has been only partial compliance with the government directive to pay wages without deduction and not demand rent. The study also found that aid to construction workers from the cess collected by labour welfare boards is out of reach for workers who are not registered. Very few States recognised the distress of migrant workers and extended relief measures such as free rations to those without ration cards and cash transfers to stranded migrants.

The SWAN study found that 89 per cent of the stranded workers had not been paid wages by their employers during the first 21 days of lockdown. The volunteers also found that 74 per cent of migrant workers had less than half their daily wages to live on, for the rest of the lockdown period.

The average wage of most migrant workers is about ₹400 a day. “With ₹200 in hand, they not only have to get rations in places where rations or cooked food are not available but also fend for essentials such as soap, oil, cooking gas, sanitary pads, medicines, phone recharge and transportation cost to return home post lockdown,” the study reported. The precariousness of their plight is made worse as they worry about paying rent for their accommodation at a time of no income. Room rents are in the range of ₹2,000-3,000 a month.

Steps to ease distress

The study found incremental improvements by the third week of the lockdown as interventions by State governments and other organisations reached more people. However, the rate of hunger exceeded the rate of relief. Thus the percentage of people who had received government rations increased from 1 per cent to 4 per cent in the third week of lockdown, the percentage of people who did not get cooked food from the government or any local organisation decreased from 80 per cent to about 70 per cent from the end of second week to the end of third week of lockdown.

The SWAN study also found that both local organisations and the government machinery were able to cater to the needs of groups with a sizable number of members, while smaller groups of less than 10 workers per group were administratively harder to reach. As a result, they were more prone to be excluded from government support or civil society support.

The distress of the migrants can be better addressed by quickly universalising rations to all, cash transfer of ₹7,000 per stranded worker for at least two months and increasing feeding centres, SWAN volunteers have recommended.