MIGRANT WORKERS PLIGHT
Author: Harshada Gupta
“Walking thousands of miles: to live or to die?”
Imagine being in a pathetic condition under this lockdown: eagerly waiting to reach your hometown, walking thousands of miles barefooted, no clean drinking water, no food, no shelter, and with no money. This is what, in reality, faced by those poor migrant workers, who resided in cities for work to earn some money and now left with no money, no additional savings & no other help, under this pandemic situation of covid-19! This is the first time ever happened in our modern India’s history as not just a crisis on poor workers but a felony of human rights of these specific hapless class of people in our country.
CRISIS ON MIGRANTS
Migrant Workers are badly and seriously affected by India’s Nationwide lockdown which came into force on 25th March 2020. They are being crushed to death on roads either by vehicle or from acute hunger, thirst, or desperation to reach their villages.
The worse conditions of barefooted migrant workers on roads, railway stations, and bus terminals violates Article 21 ‘Right to Life’ of the Indian Constitution, interpreted by Supreme Court to mean “the right to live a life, the right to live with human dignity, the right to shelter, the right to health”, which are all infringed by denying adequate health care facilities, nutrition, housing and sanitation to these numerous migrant workers.
The promises, to provide food, drinking water, shelter, or free cost of traveling, made by the Central & State Government or the Opposition Party on the media, were just a happening; nothing concrete appeared on the actual grounds. With a dismissal response from the Government regarding migrants, it was left on Judiciary to take an effective and quick, reliable decision.
“BARBARIC” SAYS NHRC
When the central government made a decision to start ‘Shramik Special Trains’, the payment of ticket fares became a topic of issue. In reality, the workers were paying the cost of tickets which were priced double than the normal cost. Even after such a struggle, they did not know that they would have to face even more difficulties, such as lack of food, lack of clean drinking water, inhuman treatment, taking days & days to reach their destination, which resulted in all into the death of many poor migrant workers!
NHRC, by taking suo moto cognizance, reported to the media about the trains taking a lot of days to reach the destination. Also, they issued notices to the Railway Authority, Union Home Ministry, Gujarat Government & Bihar Government. According to NHRC, this whole appalling scenario amounted to a total violation of human rights.
JUDICIARY TAKES CHARGE
High Courts of India, such as Madras High Court, Gujarat High Court, Allahabad High Court, Karnataka High Court, Andhra Pradesh High Court, etc. have been active in scrutinizing Public Interest Litigations (PILs) related to the plight of migrant workers.
Madras High Court said, “The pathetic condition of migrant labourers is nothing but a human tragedy. It is a pity to see the migrant labourers walking for days together to reach their native places and in the process, some of them lost their lives due to accidents.” The court ordered the government to address the situation and demanded to gather state-wise data on migrant workers’ issues.
On the other hand, a division bench of Justice J B Pardiwala and Justice I J Vora of Gujarat High Court, said: “We direct the railway authorities to waive one-way charges of these migrant labourers or in the alternate, for the state government to bear such charges.”
The 3 Judges bench comprising Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice S K Kaul and Justice MR Shah, had taken sou moto cognizance of the migrant’s plight. The Supreme Court issued directives to the Government, made to ease the sufferings & privation of migrant workers, including basic measures like the provision of food, shelter, and free transportation. Also, the court has given 15 days time period to both the center & state to transport the migrant workers, provide opportunities for employment and other kinds of various relief.
INDIAN LABOUR LAW
While the Judiciary came late for the betterment of the migrating workers, it is still ‘Better late than never’ situation. What Prof G. Mohan Gopal (former director of the National Judicial Academy) says, “However, the Supreme Court needs to go beyond enabling the flight of migrant labour. It needs to establish a strong framework for human rights and principles that will protect our workers and prevent such a flight of desperation from ever happening again in our country.” is correct in real sense.
The consequence of lockdown became for migrant labourers, a ‘disaster’. This resulted in an urgent need to bring into a rational-legal framework for the migrant labourers of India.
The ‘Inter-State Migrant Workers Act 1979’ aims to prevent the exploitation of inter-state migrant workmen by contractors and to ensure fair & decent conditions of employment. The provisions of this Act are:
- It requires all establishments hiring inter-state migrants to be registered and be licensed.
- To provide all the information of these inter-state migrant workmen to registered authorities.
- Migrant workmen are entitled to wages, displacement allowance, journey allowance, and payment of wages during the period of journey.
- To ensure regular payments, non-discrimination, provisions of special accommodation, free medical aid, and proper clothing of the workmen.
Despite the existence of this Act, there was no proper implementation which could have resulted in its legal formalization. Neither these inter-state migrant workers were registered nor licensed. Consequently, the State Government did not have exact information on these migrant workers. Almost no State had implemented this law properly, which affected millions of migrant workers in terms of their jobs being lost, no source for earning money, unable to pay rent, etc.
If there was proper implementation of this law in the States, then a large segment of workers would have been registered under this Act, and the State Government would have complete details of inter-state migrant workmen coming within their state, resulting into being fully prepared for the protection of these migrant workers under this crisis.
There are thousands of laws prevailing in our India, maintaining a proper legal system with an amalgamation of constitutional laws, civil laws, criminal laws, family laws, environmental laws, labour laws, property laws, nationality laws, etc. These laws are important for the development of society. But the lacuna in our legal system is the implementation of the execution of the laws in our country.
The Indian Parliament has enacted various laws, but the importance of execution or implementation is avoided by the States or by the Central Government. This results in the underprivileged section to suffer more & more, as what happened in our country during this nationwide lockdown, especially with the migrant workers.
Our legal system must bring a change to fill this gap. The Supreme Court must form a committee to check the proper & full implementation and proper functioning of the various Acts. These committees must punish those who do not adhere to the protocols/ SOPs/ procedures formalized under the Act and also for the non-execution of such Acts.
To conclude, I would like to say that our nation has so many Acts, laws, powers, authorities, management, strong government, media, etc. but still the poor or underprivileged are deprived of their legal and constitutional rights. Also, this section is unaware of their rights, benefits & legal knowledge. To improve these conditions, the Government together with the Judiciary must make efforts to spread the knowledge of the law to these poor segments of our Indian society.
 Badhwar Inderjit, High Courts: Leading the Charge, India Legal E-Magazine, 08 June 2020, Pg. 4; Mishra Neeraj, Judiciary Steps In, India Legal E-Magazine, 08 June 2020, Pg. 10; Gopal G Mohan, Migrants Need Strong Human Rights, India Legal E-Magazine, 08 June 2020, Pg. 14; https://online.fliphtml5.com/ncez/qzuv/
 Pandey Geeta, Coronavirus in India: Desperate migrant workers trapped in Lockdown, BBC News, 21st April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-aisa-india-52360757
 Tully Mark, India’s Migrant Workers deserve better than this, Hindustan Times, 09 May 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/india-s-migrant-workers-deserve-better-than-this-opinion/story-gnliWO3oiKuR5u2H4R1KXL.html
 Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979, Bare Act.
 Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
 NHRC full form National Human Rights Commission, it is a statutory public body, responsible for the protection and promotion of the human rights.
 Barbaric means very cruel and violent
 Shramik Special Train – Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Railways announced to run 100 Shramik Special Trains to transport stranded labourers home
 Sou moto is a latin term meaning ‘on its own motion’, it is legal term and it is used in situations where a government or court official acts of its own initiative.
 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) refers to litigation undertaken to secure public interest and demonstrates the availability of justice to socially disadvantaged parties. It was introduced by Justice P. N. Bhagwati.
 Better late than never is an English idiom meaning it is better for someone to arrive or do something late than not to arrive or do it at all.
 Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979 is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted to regulate the condition of service of inter-state labourers in Indian labour law.