Though the plight of migrant workers was highly visible at the Delhi-UP border, hundreds of bonded labourers are languishing unseen in brick kilns and stone quarries
“A number of bonded labourers were freed just three months back — some right before the lockdown. They were just getting back to some semblance of normalcy, working as daily wagers and earning enough to survive,” says Dr Kandasamy Krishnan, executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development. The NGO works to rescue and rehabilitate bonded labourers in south India. He has in his time seen thousands of cases of what is known as modern-day slavery.
The announcement of the nation-wide lockdown which began on March 24, in Dr Krishnan’s opinion, was an emotional decision and not an intellectual one. Inability to understand the consequences for the poorest sections of society shows the ‘inefficiency’ of the government.
“Whenever I sit down to eat food, I first think about all those migrants who don’t have a morsel. Migrant labourers, daily wage workers, seasonal workers, tribals and their problems should be addressed first. When you say that Coronavirus is a very serious issue, so are these people’s issues. Most of them have food stocked for just a day or two. They live on a day-to-day basis and now face huge insecurity,” he says.
Just 14 days into the lockdown, the NGO Jan Sahas released a report titled ‘Voices of Invisible Citizens’ which assesses the impact of Covid-19 on internal migrants. As many as 42% of labourers they spoke with had no ration left even for the day, let alone for the duration of the lockdown. Its findings were published after conducting telephonic interviews with 3,196 migrant construction workers from North and Central India.
The Economic Survey of India 2017 had estimated that the magnitude of inter-state migration in India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal; the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
With borders being closed, there are thousands of people stranded without jobs, and thus wages. Jan Sahas says that 33% of their respondents were still stuck in destination cities due to the lockdown with little or no access to food, water and money.
Dr Krishnan pointed to this disturbing fact at a location he wishes to not disclose. There are about 400 people, he says, majority of them migrants from Odisha and Bihar who are left without a job and means of income in a remote area bordered by Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. Before the nation-wide lockdown the men and women were employed in a stone quarry, a site where they have also been living for over a year.
He found out about the group when labourers got in touch with people in Odisha, who then contacted him. “I got my team here in South India to visit the labourers on April 6 and gave them food. The workers were left without pay when this lockdown was announced. Now the authorities have been informed and help will reach them from the government as well”.
“Similarly, there are vulnerable daily wage labourers and many stone quarries and brick kilns in south Karnataka, north Tamil Nadu where there are at least 150 brick kiln units. Each brick kiln would have 200 people working. Suddenly they have nothing and panic has ensued. Some managed to go back to their native places but those that stayed back are now left with no provisions. It is just unimaginable what has happened within a few days.”
In Telangana, while the government is distributing food through ration cards, there are also migrant workers being aided with relief material. The state he does commend is Kerala, which has ensured that every district has community kitchens, which ensure no one goes hungry.
“The central government has been telling even the small industries that pay should not be cut and all wages must be given. But the same government, which has increased salary from Rs 182 to Rs 202 per day of wages under the MGNREGA scheme, does not understand that there will be hardly any jobs during this lockdown. They should instead transfer money to accounts directly, which would be a more logical way.”
The Jan Sahas report points out that Rs 1,830 crore wages are still pending under the scheme. It urges the government to ensure that pending wages and wages for idle days reach pre-registered labourers during the lockdown period and that the acceptance rate of households looking to register for the scheme be increased.
Furthermore, it finds that a huge number of households have been denied job cards. Its own database shows that only 30% labourers possess job cards, “which makes the rest 70% extremely vulnerable during this crisis”.
Pradeep, who works for the rehabilitation of bonded labourers for another NGO called Jai Bhim in north India, highlights the plight of the regions he works at, including UP’s Badaun, Shahjahanpur and Chitrakoot. He says that while most of the survivors of bonded labour have the all-important ration cards, there are many migrant labourers who don’t have this provision — leaving them highly vulnerable. “Some are still working in the fields as it’s wheat harvesting time,” he tells us.
Pradeep also points out that it is difficult to reach relief material to those who live deep in the interiors. “When I go for rehabilitation work, I leave early in the morning and come back home only around 2 am. It’s a far-off place which is hard to access. It is even more difficult to get the ration to them”.
Pradeep also gave us the phone number of Ravi (name changed) who is presently in Rajasthan working in a brick kiln. He says that he has not received any help from the officials and that is probably because the boss is paying him on a weekly basis.
While work was stopped at the brick kiln after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement, it restarted about 10 days later. “We were paid even for those 10 days and now we have started working again so we are getting paid,” Ravi says. While the Rajasthan government has allowed some manufacturing units to operate, they only include those providing essentials like pharmaceuticals, food items and also fertilisers, pesticides and seeds and not brick kilns.
The brick kiln he said is situated in Vijaynagar town of Rajasthan’s, which has a couple of hundred people employed. Pradeep believes that because many brick kilns are in the interior parts of the state, chances of them not being found defying the lockdown orders is high.