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The Mistreatment of Indian Migrant Workers Is Nothing New

Large numbers of Indian migrant workers live in abhorrent conditions and many have limited access to potable water. India’s apathy towards the working class is appalling, to say the least.

By Visvajit Sriramrajan

TW: Death of migrant workers

The shutdowns implemented at the local, state and national levels in India in light of the COVID-19 pandemic have illuminated a predicament the country’s leaders have long pushed off: its migrant workers. With either partial or full suspensions of such vital transportation services as the Indian Railways and regional bus services having gone into effect, laborers who had left their home states to find work opportunities in other parts of the country are now stranded.

Planes are operating domestically, albeit sparsely, yet many of these migrants are daily-wage workers and lack the necessary means to purchase flight tickets. Most don’t possess vehicles, and even the rare few with access to a car cannot travel more than a few kilometers without being stopped and berated by police officers for violating lockdown orders by local authorities. Protests against this state of affairs, such as the one that took place in May in the South Gujarat city of Surat, are similarly met with lathi charges by the police.

The mistreatment of migrant workers, however, is not by any means a new phenomenon brought forth by the pandemic. The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, which was passed into law in 1979, emphasized the rights these workers have, which include monetary allowance for displacement and returning home, as set forth in Sections 14 and 15. The act also mandates medical facilities and a suitable residential accommodation free of charge. In reality, due to the lack of enforcement by the central government, nearly none of these requirements are upheld by states.

Large numbers of migrant workers live in abhorrent conditions — many construction workers, who constitute close to half of all migrant workers, sleep on the very construction sites they work on — and several have limited access to potable water. Additionally, the illegality of certain work, such as illicit quarrying for sandstone in states like Rajasthan, Karnataka and Kerala, also discourage workers from reporting poor working conditions. Even reports of such conditions in legal work is often dismissed by law enforcement officials.

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As such, the discourse surrounding migrant workers cannot be tied only to the COVID-19 pandemic. Neglect for these individuals is deep-rooted in Indian capitalism. The discovery of hundreds of migrant workers under a bridge near the contaminated Yamuna River made headlines throughout the country yet represent only one occurrence of several of the blatant disregard for human rights by elitist employers. Many of these migrants are young children who have no access to education, while others, even prior to the closure of shops, have had little access to sanitary products or nutritious meals.

Migrants who have worked as waitstaff at restaurants served extravagant food to customers around the clock only to receive a meal or two a day themselves. Others’ survival is contingent upon food handouts, which have proven to be unpredictable and full of red tape. A poignant photograph surfaced online in early May of rotis dropped on a railroad track after migrant workers were killed by a passing freight train in Maharashtra. Sadly, this has been the reality for migrant workers for quite some time.

Volunteers from independent organizations like the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) have pooled together resources and perform constant outreach with workers on the ground in an attempt to provide them with the relief they need. The government, however, has barely aided at all, and as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi extends lockdown orders and disseminates new information to the Indian public at a moment’s notice, thousands of migrant workers struggle to keep up; for instance, many migrants were not made aware the recent closure of state borders in India until days after its implementation.

Likewise, news of the abrupt demonetization of high-denomination banknotes back in 2016 did not immediately make its way to migrant workers, who faced immense losses, as many had no bank account and others could not afford to spend a day waiting in queues for ATMs. Currently, some local governments are pushing for the Aarogya Setu mobile application to be a mandatory download for residents, yet the harsh reality remains that most migrant laborers do not have smartphones.

India’s apathy towards the working class is appalling, to say the least. Respect and decency are the bare minimum when it comes to the treatment of people. The Indian government can prioritize this issue if it so chooses. Unless the prerogatives of workers are protected, the country cannot progress societally. As messages of faux unity and togetherness continue to circulate on social media and through governmental broadcasts, the government has the suffering and anguish of tens of millions of laborers in its hands.

Visvajit Sriramrajan is a journalist based in New York. He writes about the intersection between minority rights and governmental policy in South Asia. He can be found on Twitter as @vsvjt.

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