Sanwar Ali: Migrant worker lockdown scandal in India

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There have been clashes between police and migrant workers

Indian Migrant Workers - Emergency Rescue Services on Facebook

When we talk about migrants we typically talk about people moving from one Country to another.  In this case we are talking about millions of people who have left their villages to work in the cities in India mainly in low paid jobs.  Many of these people suddenly lost their jobs after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown of 24 March 2020 in India.  This contrasts with Indian migrants that people typically think of who are skilled IT professionals in say the UK on Tier 2 visas and in the US on H1B visas.

Indian Government slow to help migrant workers

In a major embarrassment to the Indian Government there have been scenes of badly paid migrant workers in India desperately trying to reach home seen all over the World.  The response by the Indian Government has been painfully slow.  Inadequate Government benefits for poor migrants workers took fifty days to announce.

In the meantime left without money and food migrant workers had to leave for home to villages around India.  These people have typically little or no savings.   Due to the coronavirus lockdown transportation was either not available or was unaffordable. 

Previously Indian Government had asked penniless migrants to pay train fare home

The Government has previously organised special trains for migrants to return home, but had asked for a train fare.  There was criticism from opposition politicians.

The National Conference leader, Omar Abdullah, said in a tweet:

“If you are stuck abroad … the government will fly you back for free, but if you are a migrant worker stranded in another state, be prepared to cough up the money for the cost of travel.”

The Samajwadi party leader, Akhilesh Yadav, called the decision “highly shameful”.

The Congress party president, Italian born Sonia Gandhi, announced that the party had decided it would bear the cost of the travel:

“humble contribution” towards the workers.

“Our workers and labourers form the backbone of our economy. Their hard work and sacrifice are the foundation of our nation.”

Tragic story of Rampukar Pandit the construction worker

This story has made news in India and internationally.  It symbolises the tragedy of India’s migrant workers.  Rampukar Pandit, a construction worker, was stuck in Delhi for three days and could not see his dying son in Bihar.

Mr Pandit, a construction worker in Delhi had heard that his 11-month-old son was seriously unwell. There was no public transport to reach his home in Begusarai in Bihar, 1,200 km (745 miles) away.  He reached Nizamuddin Bridge where, exhausted and hungry, he could go no further.  He then went to a Police Station.  While waiting a group of strangers helped.  A woman paid for his ticket home.

Rampukar Pandit had the following to say:

“We labourers have no life, we are just a cog in the wheel, spinning continuously until we run out of life,” the 38-year-old said.

Migrant workers using whatever transport is available to reach home

Many of the journeys by migrant labourers are long and hazardous.  If no other transportation is available for them they try and make the journey by foot.  Some need to travel about a thousand kilometres.  Some die of hunger, sunstroke or in accidents on the way home.  Recently there have been deaths of 16 migrant workers who were sleeping on a railway line and deaths of about 24 people in a truck accident.

As reported in the Guardian an auto-rickshaw driver fleeing Mumbai had the following to say: “Even if I starve in the village, I will never come back. My children needed medicines and food and I wasn’t able to do anything.”