Corona Chronicles: The High Tide of Hunger

The authors decided not to change the names of the workers mentioned in the article. How much more can we anonymise the already anonymous, who have been forced to occupy the cracks of our society?


“I have a one-year-old baby and no money to even buy milk,” said an aggrieved Krishna Mandal. Krishna, from Jharkhand, has been working as a daily wage factory worker in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. He hasn’t been paid since the lockdown. Pampi Kumari and her husband from Bihar work as daily wage labourers in Gurugram, Haryana. She worked in a medical supplies company while her husband worked as a construction worker. She hasn’t been able to work recently due to a liver problem and since the lockdown, her husband has not been paid his daily wages. They are left with only Rs 200 to survive the rest of the extended lockdown added to which are Pampi’s medical expenses that have already crossed Rs 10,000. Suresh Yadav, from Jharkhand, is a driver in a loading yard and has been stranded in Sundargarh, Odisha. His vehicle has been his home since March 24th and he only has Rs 50 remaining. He neither has accessories to cook nor has access to feeding centres.

These remind us of the lines from Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”

Scenes of their discontent and resistance against the lockdown and its extension came to the fore recently in Surat and Mumbai as thousands gathered on the street. All they want is to be extricated from the continued trauma imposed by the brutal lockdown and be able to go home; the most basic of human needs.

Since the lockdown, a group of 73 volunteers, called the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), has been responding to distress calls from migrant workers across the country and making small cash transfers to meet basic needs in addition to connecting workers to local organizations and the administration. Between March 27th and April 13th, around 10,000 stranded workers have reached out. A detailed report can be found here. The report is not a research study but is an outcome of relief work that SWAN is doing. The relief work is continuing.

The observations from the data gathered, while not uniform in response rates due to the evolving nature of SWAN’s work, still yields a disturbing overview.  Around 49% (out of 2707 workers for whom we have this data) had just 1 day of rations left. 96% (out of 9302 workers) had not received rations from the government and 70% (out of 2293) had not received any cooked food. And, more than 44% were absolutely emergency calls with no food or cash.  What is the most disturbing is the following: Rate of hunger is exceeding the rate of relief. Percentage of people who said they have less than 1 day of rations increased from 36% to 49% in the third week of lockdown while the percentage of people who received government rations increased from 1% to only 4% in the third week of lockdown

The unilateral decision of a lockdown without any consultation with state governments has taken both the migrant workers and the bureaucracy by surprise. The response from state administrations has varied. The Principal Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, Karnataka, Ms. Uma Mahadevan, has responded to our SOS requests for rations, humanely and with urgency. About 33 per cent of the workers in Karnataka had rations for just 1 day. However, the response from administrators in other states have been patchy. Maharashtra has been particularly bad. As of April 20, more than 73% of  1366 workers who reached out to us from Maharashtra have said that they have ration lasting for less than 1 day.

To prevent the migration of the distressed due to the lockdown, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order on 29th March seeking that employers should pay the workers full wages and homeowners shouldn’t be charging rent from stranded workers. However, 90%(out of 4503 workers) have said that they have not been paid during the lockdown.

There is a statutory obligation to record migrant labour in many legislations that is binding on the central and state governments such as the National Disaster Management Act (2005), the InterState Migrant Worker Act (1979), and the Street Vendors Act (2014), among others. Further, there are other wage laws mandating that workers are entitled to the payment of full and timely wages, to displacement allowance, and even a home journey allowance.

In response to a Public Interest Litigation (Writ petition (civil) Diary no 10801/2020) to this end by Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj vs Union of India, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) recently remarked: “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?” However, from the people we have spoken with, more than 78 per cent of nearly 2000 stranded workers who responded to this question said that they have less than Rs 300 left. With the remaining Rs 300, they have to survive till the month end, be able to buy soaps, oil, water, vegetables, medicines, recharge their phones, pay room rent and also return home. This also when about 90% out of 4503 workers said that they have not been paid during the lockdown. In the light of such alarming testimonies of around 10,000 workers, the CJI’s remark appears to underestimate the extent of the humanitarian crisis and the need for money. Food and cash for the stranded workers are not binaries. At such times, it behoves the Apex Court to oversee rather than overlook.

635 academics and civil society activists (including the petitioners) had appealed to the central government on 24th March with an array of emergency relief measures. Among other things, the appeal sought an emergency cash relief of Rs 7,000 per household for at least 2 months for the bottom 80 percent of the households. The need for such a relief measure can also be backed by the government’s own data. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of 2017-18, about 82 percent of the households earn less than the minimum living wages of Rs 18,000 per month as arrived at in the 7th Pay Commission and 69 percent of the households earn less than 400 per day (average daily wage). Since the lockdown, even the relief measures in the aforementioned appeal seem inadequate. Indeed, when Vivekananda, a migrant worker from Jharkhand in Bangalore, reached out, his wife was not able to feed her infant because she had not eaten anything for 2 days.

We debated whether to change the names of the workers mentioned in this article to preserve anonymity. But we haven’t. How much more can we anonymise the already anonymous who have been forced to occupy the cracks of our society? There is still some time to stem the extent of the devastation, take this opportunity and reimagine a truly equitable welfare state, assuring a life of dignity and security for all. As an immediate measure, with more than 78 million tonnes of grain in FCI godowns, we urge universalisation of free rations, increase feeding centres, and give at least Rs 7,000 per month to all the stranded. Women, and, in particular, pregnant women, are in urgent need for nutritional supplements and sanitary pads along with ration supplies. We are, otherwise, staring at an unprecedented multidimensional crisis; of hunger, malnutrition, crime, and death.

Rajendran is a SWAN volunteer. This is collective work and is written on behalf of all the tireless SWAN volunteers. Rajendran teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.



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May 2024



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