Updated: April 16, 2020 3:17:27 pm
# 50 per cent of stranded workers have ration that will not last one day; 72 per cent of workers have rations that will not last beyond two days
# 78 per cent of workers left with less than Rs 300
# 98 per cent have not received any cash benefits from the government.
As the nationwide lockdown is extended till May 3, a report released by a volunteer group has pointed to the scale of the hunger crisis and economic distress among migrant workers stranded in cities.
Since March 27, two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown to tackle the spread of COVID-19, a group of academics and right to food activists began receiving distress calls from migrant workers stranded in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi and Haryana. “While we first tried to respond with basic cash transfers, we soon realised the scale of deprivation was huge,” said Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
Till April 13, the group of 73 volunteers of the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) were contacted by 640 groups of stranded workers — comprising 11,159 workers across the country. They helped the workers by cash transfers (Rs 3.8 lakh), linking them to local organisations and arranging for government facilities. “While this did not start as a research project, the data we pooled can help understand the migrant workers’ experience of the lockdown,” said Narayanan.
A majority of the workers that the group contacted had chosen to stay behind in cities or failed to make the long trek back home. Nearly half (44 per cent) of the calls received till April 13 were SOS — people desperate for food or cash. This number stood at 36 per cent at the end of the second week of the lockdown.
The report alleged that despite efforts and promises, the state and Central governments are stumbling in reaching out to migrant workers. For example, 96 per cent had not received rations from the government and 70 per cent had not got cooked food.
In Maharashtra, which accounted for most of the workers in the sample (3,992), less than 1 per cent received any ration from the government and nearly 90 per cent feared they would be out of ration in two days.
In Mumbai, where restless workers thronged a rail station on Tuesday, the volunteers found it hardest to arrange food and rations. “In places like Antop-Hill, Mumbai, we have been in touch with more than 300 migrant workers. They have been scrambling for cooked food and there have been multiple reports of children falling sick due to eating packed food. They have also repeatedly called helplines in vain. There are around 600 migrants stranded in Taloja-Panvel region as well, with women and little children as young as a few weeks old. Organisations working in those areas do not have the capacity to cater to such large numbers. The government has to step in quickly,” the report stated.
The report claimed that the rate of hunger and distress exceeds the rate of relief, even though this is a developing scenario. “The percentage of people who have not received rations from the government has decreased from around 99 per cent on April 8 to about 96 per cent on April 13. In other words, two weeks into the lockdown, only one per cent of the stranded workers had received rations from the government and three weeks into the lockdown, only 4 per cent of them had received rations from the government.”
Narayanan said that the present crisis reveals that the migrant workers are a blind spot for most administrations. “While under various legislations, like the Interstate Migrant Worker Act (1979), and the Street Vendors Act (2014), the state must keep a record of migrant labour, there is little administrative oversight of their work conditions. Which is why state governments are finding it hard to reach aid to the workers,” he said.
According to the report, despite a directive from the Union home ministry, 89 per cent workers have not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. The majority of workers did not know the name of the company or the builder they were working for; they only knew the contractor, who, in many cases, had switched the phone off. “Had the governments maintained information more accurately on where workers are employed, how many of them are employed, by whom etc, then the hunger crisis could have been averted to a great extent. Delivery of rations could have happened more effectively,” the report said.
Narayanan also cautioned against seeing cash and food as an either-or choice. “The honourable CJI has asked why should workers need cash when they are getting food. But for many workers, cash is a lifeline when they are stranded in smaller groups, or when they need to buy medicines, or to recharge their phones, which is the only way they have to seek help. With less than Rs 300 left, they are in a precarious situation,” he said.
Given this scenario, workers in Surat and Mumbai are turning out on streets to demand that they be allowed to go home out of anger and frustration, Narayanan said. “They don’t have money left. Their basic needs are not being met. Rations have been difficult to access. There is immense uncertainty about when they will be able to go back home. Without jobs, they would want to be with their families because they have no social network or power in the places they are stranded now. It’s a mix of frustration, anger and resistance to being forced to stay where they are. There’s nobody to listen to their woes or requests,” Narayanan said.
To tackle this deprivation, the SWAN report recommended doubling PDS rations for three months, and universalising access to it, ensuring a minimum of two cooked meals a day through 70 feeding centres per 1 lakh people, emergency cash relief of Rs 7,000 per month for 2 months to be given as cash (without biometric authentication) to each poor household/migrant worker and minimum wages for 25 days per month to be released into Jan Dhan accounts. “Unless a combination of universal rations and money transfers, are implemented in letter and spirit, India is staring at alarming levels of destitution and despair,” it stated.
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