[Originally printed in Mid-Day]

As unemployed migrant workers left for their hometowns in the lockdown, stories of pain, sacrifice and heroism were being written. These are now part of an extensive report by the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network.

A woman covers her children with a shawl to protect them from the sun as she waits with other migrant workers and families to get registered for a train going to their native place in New Delhi in May last year. Pic/AFP

In May 2020, Hashim Midha (name changed on request) and his friends in Singhbhum district of Jharkhand trudged towards their home in Berhampore, West Bengal. The penniless group decided to take an arduous path, snaking through the hilly region. The distance was too long, and the ration too meagre. They walked for days, occasionally stopping at villages. Until one day, they crossed path with the police force. "We were sent back to Jharkhand and were locked up in a quarantine centre," remembers Midha, 35, as he begins sharing his story from India's largest exodus since Partition. "We were fed horrible meals; most of us chose to remain hungry. The sheer mistreatment towards us was appalling. I sat on an anshan [hunger strike]."

Ten days on, the authorities still refused to pay heed to Midha's demand of providing them decent food. The protest resonated with the others who had been holed in there before him. Finally, the police intervened and arranged for buses to send Midha and his friends back home. "But, even on our journey to Bengal, there were no arrangements made for food," Midha's voice chokes over a phone call with this writer.

Shreela ManoharShreela Manohar

It is stories like Midha's that have inspired the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN) to document a unique report titled, Citizens and the Sovereign: Stories from the largest human exodus in contemporary Indian history. MWSN consists of activists who have been part of workers' movements, and workers' organisations from across the country. The pandemic forced them to streamline themselves into a nationwide network to address the plight of stranded migrant workers. They came in direct contact with 45,000 workers stranded in different locations through a helpline in 10 different languages. "The fact that they [migrant workers] are rightful citizens of this country, their worth, contribution, and how the 'growth' story in India, in the past few decades, is being written through sweat and exploitation of these workers, was largely unspoken in public discourse. This report is an attempt to throw light on these aspects," explains Shreya Ghosh, member, MWSN.

Alok Kumar, 31, a student of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), who had been a part of active relief work, was stopping migrant workers from crossing the Mohali and Chandigarh borders. "When the lockdown started, the government had not made any announcement on what would happen to these people, who were now out of jobs and homes. A few weeks later in April last year, at a park in Mohali's Sector 66, provisions were made for some ration including rice, dal and cooking oil. Serpentine queues were seen the next day. However, packets were only enough to feed 100 stomachs. The queue saw about a 1,000 labourers standing. How is this fair?" Kumar asks.

Shreya GhoshShreya Ghosh

Those who missed their chance on the first day, were seen lined up overnight. "Some of them had six members in the family. They had no source of income; the only hope was this ration provided by the government." So, when the government finally announced buses and Shramik trains to take them home, Kumar was against the idea. "How would they go on so many days without food? I, along with other volunteers, began convincing them to stay back till a legitimate train ticket was bought to send them home. Not many, however, listened to us. I don't blame them. They were desperate to reunite with their families. But some lost their lives on the way," Kumar rues.

Construction workers without labour cards were exploited the most. "Big contractors identify youth in smaller villages and offer them a total of Rs 10,000 for their labour. They bring these migrant workers to Mohali and make them work for six months. They are promised labour cards in return, which will ensure they will get definite pay. But, it is never fulfilled. During the lockdown, when some construction sites were still operating, these labourers were made to toil every day without being paid," Kumar adds.

Along with Kumar's observations, Chennai-based lawyer and activist Shreela Manohar's interview has also made it to the MWSN report. Manohar feels that Tamil Nadu performed better in handling the effects of lockdown compared to other states in India. "Within three to four weeks of the lockdown, the state government announced some schemes that benefitted not only the local working population, but also the migrant workers. This shows that the state took immediate cognisance of their plight." A state-run scheme in Tamil Nadu includes subsidised canteen, which proved to be a major source of relief during the pandemic. "For almost three to four months, this subsidised food was offered free of cost to everyone. That said, I feel there were some loopholes that could have been addressed at the time," she adds.

While on paper the plans looked great, they were not implemented in totality. "For instance, if there were associations with some states like Rajasthan, then those connections would tend to lobby the bureaucracy and the departments that were taking care of the canteen operations. So basically some of the people from these states ended up having easy access to food. Others couldn't beat the queue and had to wait for their turn. They would have gotten their share of ration on time had there been transparency in the entire process of canteen food," Manohar adds.

One distinguishing factor that she noticed between protests in Tamil Nadu and other states was that there were no protests related to the quality of the food provided in relief centres or the conditions of the shelters themselves in Tamil Nadu. The protests here were mostly targeted at employers around the principal demand of letting the workers travel back to their native places. Many were targeted at multinational construction companies or manufacturing companies which forced labourers to stay back and work.

Manohar explains, "From the time the central government announced the start of Shramik trains till the date the first train left, there was not a single word from the state government to the migrant workers. There was no concrete answer as to where the train is headed and when. Migrants were forced to be held captive by their employers. This revealed the nexus between the state government and these big companies."

The report also highlights aspects linked to migration such as caste, gender and environment. "We have recorded stories of a group of girls who fought hard to return to their village in Assam during the lockdown only to find it burning, ravaged by the Baghjan oil spill," Ghosh adds.

The MWSN report aims to also highlight the systemic nature of their exploitation, which has been going on since long before the lockdown. "And, it will go on even after if we do not bring some significant changes in our economic and political reality of the country. For instance, most migrant workers do not have any significant workplace rights, or housing rights in the cities they migrate to, and most do not vote regularly since there is no postal ballot for migrant workers. Most do not have any pension or health insurance in cities they migrate to, etc. Hence, the question we wanted to ask through the report, published on the completion of six months of the lockdown, was—Will migrant lives still [continue to] matter or are we to again forget them and throw them into invisibility as the new normalcy gradually sets in?" Ghosh concludes.

Prutha Bhosle is a staff reporter at Mid-Day.