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ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Charted: Lockdown is only the beginning of misery for India’s migrant labourers

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Where do we go from here?
  • Manavi Kapur
By Manavi Kapur

Culture and lifestyle reporter

India’s coronavirus outbreak, and the ongoing 21-day lockdown to contain it, has shone a spotlight on the hard life of its seasonal migrants.

As many as 92.5% of labourers have already lost one to three weeks of work, according to a rapid assessment survey by Jan Sahas, a civil society organisation that focuses on human rights of socially excluded communities.

This loss of income is proving to be catastrophic on several fronts.

Over 80% of the country’s migrant and daily wage population fears it will run out of food before the end of the lockdown, on April 14. Nearly as many also worry that they will not be able to find work once the lockdown ends, found Jan Sahas, which surveyed 3,196 migrant workers across northern and central India between March 27 and 29.

A major reason for the food and financial insecurity is the low wages the migrants earn.

Bottom of the pyramid

Over half of India’s daily wage and migrant population earns just Rs200-400 a day ($2.6-5.2), much below the prescribed minimum wage of Rs692, Rs629 and Rs571 for skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers respectively (in Delhi).

“Owing to the highly informal and exploitative nature of the sector, labourers are most often paid much below the minimum wage rates prescribed by the local administration,” said Jan Sahas.

While the Indian government has tried to alleviate the pain of the migrants during the pandemic, by announcing a Rs1.7 lakh crore ($23 billion) package, Jan Sahas found that a large proportion of workers would be excluded from the relief.

For instance, under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Fund, workers in the sector are to be provided income support. To access this, they need a BOCW card, which only 18.8% of the respondents in Jan Sahas’ survey had.

This number reduces drastically in Jan Sahas’ overall database of 66,000 workers, where 94% do not have the card.

A large number of those affected were also unaware of the government’s schemes meant to ease the Covid-19-led economic crises. Over 60% said they had no information about these schemes or how to access them.

Hand to mouth

Over 40% of migrant workers surveyed did not have any food supplies, commonly known as ration in India. Only a handful of them said they had ration to support their households for two to four weeks.

In the eventuality of the lockdown being extended, many reported that they would barely have enough money to support basic household expenses.

Several migrant workers also have debts to repay, which are an additional cause of anxiety without a steady stream of income.

A cry for help

Over 80% respondents of the rapid assessment survey said that monthly ration support would go a long way in making their lives easier.

The Indian government, for its part, has already increased the quantity of rice and wheat under the coronavirus relief package, over and above what economically weaker sections were already entitled to.

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