Lockdown Chronicle: The Story of a Migrant Workers’ Platform Across India’s Lockdown
Editors’ Note: In one of the most brutal lockdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, India witnessed the haunting spectre of scores of migrant workers walking back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away along highways and railway lines. A critical agrarian political economy lens must recognize the multitude of ways in which these rural migrants were rendered vulnerable by the terms of their employment in the destination cities, by their desperate circumstances back in the villages, by the apathy of their employers and by the active neglect and passive collusion by the state. This chronicle of the lockdown based on testimonies and interviews of migrant workers collected by Gram Vaani, a social tech company that uses phone technology to generate bottom-up flows of information from low-income communities and to engage in assistance and campaigns to ensure the realisation of legal entitlements, is revealing. By foregrounding the voice of migrant workers across major destination states in the India, it presents a rich and textured insight into their experience of the lockdown – the choices they were forced to make, the support they did and did not receive from state and civil society, and what remains as the lockdown has begun to be relaxed.
- MAKING SENSE OF IT
When, on 24th March, India’s internal migrants learned that they were henceforth prevented from both earning and travelling home, Saajha Manch Mobile Vaani – a phone-based platform for migrant workers which uses Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology – was inundated with distress reports and calls, forcing us to repurpose, from our regular focus on rights-at-work, to respond to the looming crisis. Unlike the construction and largely unorganised sector-based workers closely reported on by SWAN and Jan Sahas, Saajha Manch’s base of 4000+ regular monthly listeners are mostly toiling in registered factories spread across industrial regions of Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region), Ahmedabad, Tirupur and elsewhere. Earlier surveys had shown us that at least half of our listeners held Provident Fund (PF) accounts and proof of employment, even though they were casually hired on a daily basis or on a seasonal basis through contractors. Therefore, we hoped that at least these workers would benefit from the central and state government orders which instructed employers to pay wages during lockdown and to not lay off workers. But our first lockdown survey – undertaken in the first two weeks of April – showed that these relatively formalised workers were magnificently let down by their employers. The government had rendered the majority of its industrial workforce stranded and destitute in one fair sweep.
From March to April, daily callers doubled and contributors tripled, and much of this sustained through May into early June. New volunteer ‘reporters’ – champions who agree to contribute to and increase the reach of Saajha Manch – joined in the crisis. How do we explain the government’s remarkable lack of attention towards these internal migrants, among the worst hit by the lockdown? Some commentators place the roots of this in fiscal concerns, that India’s economy cannot and should not bear the costs of shoring up the needy since this would require a departure from macroeconomic prudence. Others have explained it by a lack of empathy and consideration which runs deep in India’s hierarchical society, an engrained disregard and – perhaps – a belief that the poor are habituated to suffering and would soon forget the pain and settle for a leadership focused on image and illusion rather than detailed delivery, as it had after demonetisation. Another view is that the government – and its class allies – sought to make the poor the outer layer of the herd from which the inner and richer layers would be immune and protected.
Through news reports, interviews, listener opinions, queries and reflective pieces, Saajha Manch chronicled lockdown with a steady stream of migrant workers’ voices, providing a window into how some members of this 100 million-strong population were making sense of it. Accessible by phone buttons from anywhere in India, the platform builds awareness, promotes debate and facilitates solidarity. Partners2 ranging from central trade unions to local youth clubs, use the platform to reach their support base and agree to assist in off-line follow-up of grievances.
The dust – for the time being – has settled. Many of our listeners have finally managed to reach home. But the combination of disregard and inconsideration which constituted their experience of lockdown is not forgotten. “Employers are crying, ‘if we let the workers leave, our work will suffer’”, reports Rajesh from Bihar on 2nd June. “But these are the same people who refused to help in workers’ time of need, saying that their pockets were empty”. “The companies cheated the workers; the workers cried loudly in the hope that someone should help, but they were disappointed in every way and have gone to their homes”, says Saajha Manch reporter Nand Kishor. “They will prefer to work in their villages now… The torture that the workers faced cannot be forgotten in a lifetime! These were the workers who grew the companies, and the workers thought that they would consider them, but they did not… To bring back the workers, justice will have to be repaired!”. Workers, with regular employment relationships, are equally aware of how easy it could have been to push relief through employers. On 29th March, a few days before a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the same request was filed by activists in the Supreme Court, a garment worker, Imran, implores the government to work with employers to identify and trace their workforce and provide the requisite relief. But, like the PIL, this plea fell on deaf ears.