The Government has not maintained a record on the number of migrant worker deaths amidst the lockdown and so “the question (of compensation) does not arise”, the Union labour ministry informed the parliament on Monday. Their response has been met with critique and anger from activists as well as the opposition; Kerala Finance Minister, Thomas Isaac deemed it “utter callousness” and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi wrote, “If you haven’t counted, have the deaths not taken place?”
Utter callousness- Centre doesn’t care about deaths of migrant workers they caused by pushing them in to trains, makeshift carts and on foot to the distant homes. At least acknowledge tentative and incomplete data of rail Sharmik Trains and road accidents #migrantslivesmatter
— Thomas Isaac (@drthomasisaac) September 15, 2020
मोदी सरकार नहीं जानती कि लॉकडाउन में कितने प्रवासी मज़दूर मरे और कितनी नौकरियाँ गयीं।
तुमने ना गिना तो क्या मौत ना हुई?
हाँ मगर दुख है सरकार पे असर ना हुई,
उनका मरना देखा ज़माने ने,
एक मोदी सरकार है जिसे ख़बर ना हुई।
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) September 15, 2020
On September 11th, Union Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar stated that the Government is working on a database of migrant labourers. On September 8th and 10th respectively, the Centre also advised states to ensure enrolment of workers into various schemes and issued a detailed advisory on migrants worker’s welfare. These statements and advisory were critiqued by labour rights activists, who argued that there is no commitment to wages, decent facilities, and enforcement.
To make matters worse, the centre seems to not have any concrete idea of the situation of most migrant workers as of now: On the first day of the monsoon session (which is the first since the countrywide lockdown that was imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic) the Union Labour Ministry was asked if the government had any data on migrant workers who returned to their states, and whether the families of migrant workers who died would be given any compensation for their loss. In his written response, Gangawar stated, “No such data is maintained. The question does not arise in view of the above”. The Government also noted that “no data is maintained of job losses during the pandemic.”
Moreover, when asked if the Union Government had failed to maintain a record of and assess the problems faced by migrant workers during the lockdown, the government stated:
“India, as a nation, has responded through the central government, state governments, local bodies, self-help groups, resident welfare associations, medical health professionals, sanitation workers as well as a large number of genuine and bonafide nongovernmental organisations in the nation’s fight against the unprecedented humanitarian crisis due to the outbreak of Covid-19 and country-wide lockdown.”
Much like the above statement, most of the responses from the Government have been vague and lacking in any basis in systematic records. With regards to whether free rations were distributed to all ration card holders, Gangawar responded that state-wise details are not available, but that “80 crore people are being provided additional 5 kg wheat or rice and 1 kg of preferred pulses, free of cost every month till November 2020.” When asked of complaints regarding corruption in the distribution of rations, the minister simply stated that “whenever any complaint is received, the action is taken as per existing rules.” Lack of clarity with regards to the same is especially concerning since early reports from the Centre with regards to financial assistance for COVID relief were proved to have been incorrect by the Hindu.
Gangawar also mentioned that other ministries were also helping them address the concerns of migrant workers. According to the Wire, “the Ministry of Food Processing Industries has sanctioned 700 food processing and preservation and infrastructure projects in which migrant labourers will get employment. And the Ministry of Transport and Highways has identified the ongoing works and new road construction works in which migrant workers would be employed.” The Ministry of Women and Child Development has launched “various schemes and extended Anganwadi services to children of migrant workers” according to Gangawar.
Due to a lack of effort from the Government, the burden of recording databases has fallen on NGOs and individual citizens. According to a World Bank report from April, since its enforcement on March 25th, the lockdown has impacted the livelihood of nearly 40 million internal migrants. As of July, at least 110 migrants died on railway premises when Shramik trains were running, and a minimum of 198 migrant workers were killed in road accidents during the lockdown. News18 created a map of these accidents, and many people took to twitter to document and collate such news and on-ground reports, alleging that over 300 migrant workers “died in lockdown due to starvation, exhaustion, accident.”
Documented by people online-
Over 300 migrant workers died in lockdown due to starvation, exhaustion, accidents…etc
Today in Parliament, MPs asked question about migrant deaths in lockdown and reply was "No such data available."
Photo: a 12-year-old migrant worker who walked 150km and died of exhaustion pic.twitter.com/CEHiN9Cy9l
— Aslah Kayyalakkath (@aslahtweets) September 14, 2020
Is a poor person's life just an accident?
A #thread documenting migrants' journey home that turned to hell due to apathy and incompetence.
1. 16 migrants out of 20 killed after a cargo train ran over them while they were sleeping on the tracks in Aurangabad on 8th May. pic.twitter.com/aojNk4VMf7
— Just A Citizen (@ks_NotANiceGirl) May 14, 2020
In stark contrast to the treatment of these workers, the Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri stated during the session that around 1.6 million Indians who are stranded abroad have been brought back to the country under the Vande Bharat Mission. Not only were they able to create a clear record, the ministry was also given the resources to help these citizens. The differences in the response from the Union Government with regards to the situation of internal migrant labourers and those living abroad shows a serious lack of concern for poor workers, especially when international attention is not placed on the country.