File photo | Migrant workers jostle to get onto the UPSRTC buses in Delhi | Photo : Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
File photo | Migrant workers jostle to get onto the UPSRTC buses in Delhi | Photo : Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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A future historian might call this the great hostage drama. The Narendra Modi government’s actions vis-à-vis the migrant workers during the Covid-19 lockdown now leave no room for confusion. This is not about containing the coronavirus infection. This is not even about saving the government some relief package. This is about keeping workers hostage.

Our response to the plight of the migrant worker brings out all that is rotten in today’s India: obscene class inequalities, loss of society’s moral compass, paralysis of politics, and toxic media. Looking at our response, our future historian would wonder if we were reacting to some humanitarian crisis in far-away Nigeria. She might call it a democratic version of the system of indentured labour.

Facts speak for themselves. The lockdown has led to sudden job loss for more than 12 crore persons. Of these, more than four crore could be migrant labourers. A survey based on calls to a helpline number run by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) gives us a glimpse into their condition. As many as 78 per cent of them have not been paid any salary for the lockdown period. Eighty two per cent have not received any ration from the government. And 64 per cent have less than Rs 100 left with them. Without a job, running out of their meagre savings and without hope for the future, these migrants workers want what anyone would wish in their position: to go back home. Apparently, more than one crore workers have registered to return to their homes.


Also read: Like an MEA to help NRIs in crisis, India needs a system for its internal migrants too


How to ignore migrant workers

The story of the last six weeks is a study in how to keep the poor workers imprisoned without having to pay or feed them. The lockdown began with the Modi government pretending that migrant workers did not exist. There was not a word about them in the government’s original guidelines. They were noticed only when lakhs of them voted with their feet and started walking hundreds of kilometres.

Even this did not lead to any coherent policy response. The problem was managed by dispersing the crowds visible to cameras. Some of them were packed into buses, others were shoved into makeshift relief camps. Strict orders were issued not to allow anyone to travel anymore. They did not stop. Thousands, possibly lakhs, still continued to walk back, or cycle, or hitch-hike. But they were not TV headlines anymore. They did not matter.

The package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had nothing for this category, except an unworkable scheme for construction workers. The Centre refused to heed to repeated requests for providing ration to those without ration cards or to open community kitchens under the National Food Security Act. The buck was passed on to the state governments, that too on the condition that they would have to purchase food-grain from the Centre at market price. The idea of giving some cash allowance to the poor was not even heard.

Meanwhile, those who mattered were still being transported. Gujarati tourists stuck in UttarakhandAndhra pilgrims stranded in Varanasi, Punjabi pilgrims staying in Nanded, middle-class children studying in Kotaforeign citizens who needed to catch special flights, and of course, anyone related to a big or small VIP. They could be infected; indeed many of them turned out to be positive. But they were our citizens. All this was below the media radar and so was not a problem. Occasional reports of workers protest could be suppressed with the help of a friendly media.


Also read: Modi govt claims it’s paying 85% of migrants trains’ cost but has no ‘ticket’ to prove it


No train home

Eventually, towards the end of the second lockdown, the rulers decided that something had to be done about it. Hence the decision to selectively run buses and quietly, almost secretively, start running trains. The news could not be suppressed. The workers saw a release and lined up to go back. Now the problem was how to control the flow. There is no way to pick a few from the crores who wish to travel back. So, there was a money filter, the cruelest way to keep the poor out.

The story about the Centre contributing 85 per cent of the fare was pure nonsense, a dodging device to keep media distracted for one day. The simple fact is that the Indian Railways has charged exactly its normal fare for sleeper class, plus Superfast surcharge and food charges. Thus a ticket from Vasai Road (Mumbai) to Gorakhpur (incidentally the ticket tweeted by BJP’s Sambit Patra) costs around Rs 660-680 in normal times. For Shramik Express, the Railway is charging Rs 740, as I explained earlier. So, it is charging more than its normal fare. The truth is that workers have had to pay these fares, often asking families to make a reverse transfer for this purpose. Those workers who could not pay did not board the trains. The ‘sending state’ government is responsible for collecting the fares from workers or paying it directly. The ‘home state’ can do the same, but very few states have offered it. In the last instance, the already impoverished workers have to pay the fares.

There is nothing normal about the Railways’ decision to charge ‘normal’ fare for special Shramik trains. Indian Railways has a history of humanitarian evacuation. As recently as 2015, Indian Railways ran free trains for the Nepalese in the aftermath of the earthquake. Running a thousand or more special trains is not a big deal for Indian Railways. Forgoing tickets worth a few hundred crore would not have burnt a big hole for the Railways that already offers substantial subsidies for passenger fares. There was a precedent for the railways to emulate. In the course of this pandemic, the government has chartered back Indian citizens living abroad, free of cost. The decision to charge migrant workers in distress was not just wanton cruelty of some administrator, or crass commercialism of a public sector corporation. It was a political decision not to allow cheap labour to escape when they might be needed by the industry.


Also read: Is govt right to send migrants back on trains as lockdown eases & economic activity resumes?


Hostage situation

If there is any doubt about it, the Ministry of Home Affairs clarified this in its letter. The letter basically says that Shramik trains are not for migrant workers. Only persons temporarily stranded away from home can use these. Workers can’t use it to go from their workplace back to their homes. Since the authorities are trying to keep the numbers as low as possible. There are reports from several states of local authorities ‘persuading’ the workers not to go back, without of course making any arrangement for their food or cash requirements. In Karnataka, the chief minister held a meeting with the leading real estate developers and suddenly decided to withdraw request for all the special trains. The migrant workers, the cheapest labour, are indeed the glorified indentured workers of our time.

The future historian might write this story of moral cussedness, political apathy and spin-doctoring where the state was inventing ways to keep workers hostage, where the central government was passing on the buck to state governments, where the opposition was busy in one-upmanship and when the ruling party used bizarre spin and disinformation to wriggle out. She might note that the facts of the case were so straightforward that you would have to make an effort to get confused. She might wonder whether you and I were willing to suspend disbelief, lest it disrupt our lockdown peace.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. Well written,Government officials are paid good ,especially Mumbai police doing good job,but yes Government should have arranged shramik trains and the cost of trains should be free and atleast free waters should be provided to all migrants, if not food.It will not cost much Government has enough fund for it.

  2. The real culprit is the archaic labor laws that held formalization of labor and kept crores of laborers in the unorganized sector. The politics of the Congress & the Left has let them down. Of course, Modi government did not realize that they exist until the horrifying images were seen. The only way forward is to scrap the current labor laws who protect no one but rent-seeking inspectors.

  3. No sympathy at all for the migrant workers. They are the bugs of India
    Country bled through its nose just feeding them. Now transporting them. What the hell?
    They are not wanted where they are originally from. Why do they want to go home? Who will feed them there. Again the state govt will have to bleed through their nose for feeding them. They donot follow any hygiene. Just human bombs!

    • Sad to know your views on these laborers Anamika, It reminds me Hitler who wanted to crush one particular community and creed. They are human being they have not gone to abroad for jobs, or studies or on tourism they are very much in their own country..
      And i am sure they must have helped u in one or the other way e.g. providing you hygenic washroom in AC malls and so on…..

  4. So well written, so clinical. The assault on our migrants is national shame. As migrants continue their desperate walk to their home states, and as the governments in states, on one pretext or the other, continue to choke their exit through rail and road transportation and ‘persuade’ them to stay and participate in nation building by serving construction and allied businesses, it is time to support the migrants and shame the responsible state governments and predatory businesses. More people could die because of exhaustion than from carona. And lest we forget, some of Germany’s industrial giants like Krupp, IG Farben, and Thyssen were beneficiaries of state regimentation of labour. Forced labour laid the foundation of the German economic revival in the 1930s. The Great Depression was conquered by unrestricted state support to German industrial conglomerates. The war cry to avenge the humiliation at Versailles was hinged on ultra nationalism. Enemies of the State were identified and targeted with the full force of the state apparatus. Special courts like the Sondergerichte & Volksgerichtshof were created to try traitors and enemies of state. It can happen to any democracy if people resort to hero worship. Here in our country we saw the eclipse of the right to life as a fundamental right during the Emergency. And the Supreme Court, a CJI of which is now a proud member of parliament, had approved that eclipse in the infamous constitutional bench judgement in ADM Jabalpur case. The current indirect attempt to force migrant labour to stay in cities is a dark chapter in Independent India. It is for ‘We the people of India’, to use the recent invocation by our Prime Minister, to lend our voice against this cruel treatment of the most vulnerable section of our country.

  5. What’s the point of getting people with political agendas to write articles. He is an active politician and thus has an agenda and a conflict of interest which guides his articles. He finds everything wrong with what’s happening. Pity this kind of journalism.

  6. The Modi Govt. has miserably failed and now being clueless as to how to manage the crisis has been making adhoc decisions that are akin to to the situation is f a headless chicken roaming!!
    PM should have come on the national TV & assured all the citizens that non essential expenditure would be curtailed/ deferred…example cut defence budget by 20%, postpone/ scrap Central Vista project,no bullet train funding for the present etc and the same money being utilised for extending all kinds of support to the poor,needy,migrant workers,small businesses and most importantly for the medical emergencies and equipment purchase.
    FM could have announced some simple measures like No TDS deduction for 1 year on payments made, release of IT refunds up to Rs.25.0 lacs( instead of 5.0 lacs);which would have indirectly helped some of the SMEs. No concrete measures, no clear plans….leaving all citizens wondering as to what will be their fate post 17th May!!
    What happened to the 35K crores that was collected in PM cares fund?
    PM Sir, even now it’s not too late….please shake up your beauroacy, 1st give assurance,announce and IMPLEMENT special relief packages to various sectors, ensure no one dies of hunger, ensure every one gets his ration band in time, transfer the money promised to the poor without any further delay and continue to focus bon containment strategies.
    Let history not portray you as a inconsiderate and heartless leader….because we did not elect you to be like others who ruled in the past….we saw hope in you…so please do not let us down.

  7. Trillions of Rs distributed by state & central to covid related Indian citizens. Who are these migrants labourers wanted to reach home from different states? R they come from Italy or Pakistan? Not a single rupees given to them. They left for death. Utter nonsense plan. PM care collected homwmany trillion?? Railway charged for their travel. High hand by law enforcement.
    Daily wages like- tea stall, vada pav stall, barber & beautition, flower sell, paper agent, fish sellers, chicken sell, electrition, plumbing, mobile rep & recharge, railway porter, market porter, mochi footwear, etc etc, poojari who compensated their wages? Where this huge distribution gone? We need correct audit.
    We have great faith in Modiji. However lockdown management is absolutely not covered poor. Poor ppl stranded across nation. No need to worry on international population. 130 crores Indians voted not Italy or US. I am shattered the way poor people killed in Aurngabad train accident.
    Bank depositors are treated stepmother. PMC bank depositors deprived & YES bank TempeltonMF NBFC PSB given support. 1560 coop bank will have to close down one day because of stepmother treatment to poor and partiality to rich.

  8. Nicely put n summerised n put together .
    One feel bad ..really bad ..want to do something to make difference .but how

    Surprised that we are in this situation in just 1.5 month of covid

  9. The very coinage migrant labour reeks of a divisive India. Within our own country, one can go and work anywhere! Please call all IAS , IPS, IT executives and many more migrant white collar workers. The virus has exposed the ugliest faces of India in all spheres. While centre is clueless and heartless in it’s approach, the state governments are treating migrant labour most inhumanly – you don’t have to ascribe this to any party – yogendra yadav’s dearest pal or the tiger party chief or any of the oldest party CMs of any state, the lotus leaders, the communist leader down south…. for them all the labourers from other states do not represent vote bank. Very simple logic & hence no ration, no money and no nothing. What about businessmen who employ them and make fortunes? They go queuing to CM to stop the labourers from leaving! Did they ask the CMs while recruiting the labourers & ditching them? NGOs don’t get the mileage locally by assisting migrant labour and hence they ignore. For local population they are any way alien. For media, it’s mere trp by showing their misery. What India achieved is to break the self esteem of crores of the poor people. But they have very little choice or voice. There is nothing to do back home in those Bhimaru states and hence trudging back to different parts of India would be unavoidable. Would we learn anything? Yogendra will reel statistics of how many belonged to which state, caste, religion and language. Solution for all these? All the people who wield the power including those with pen, continue to earn their money from various channels & are party of the circus. BJP is bad and so in the next hustings we will have Sonia. What will change? The blame game and the players! Yogendra will then be writing about another calamity – that time he will criticize madam, Madam’s pet child & the oldest party. How long this tamasha with 40% of the voters not voting and 30 crore people on doles would continue? For ever because ours is the largest democracy.

  10. Inhumanity of Central government.This type of hopeless work is a shame for a nation.

  11. God give you luck for raising the voice for Poor’s and farmers. You have opposed all government, so I believe you are not against one person in government rather whole ” sarkari system “.
    Many of us can’t dare… And you are a hero for those…
    Countdown for Corrupt GoberNance has started by the Poor’s and Helpless farmers curse.

  12. Dear sir I would disagree with your assessment about not allowing workers to go back. The fact is their is every chance of spread of virus to districts in green zone because most of the people travellers are travelling from districts in red zone. Also I do understand the moral hazard of stopping the workers from going to their native place, but we have to understand that they will play a very vital role in the economic revival.

    • If so should we not give them.food, shelter and confidence and dignity?

      Our family paid for the last 2 months salary to our workers who were asked to stay at their home.

      We are.not super rich.

      Why not government directly pay to the workers.and deduct later from businesses say after 2 years?

      Some.buainesses might die. That’s ok.

  13. It’s ‘Hate Hindu’ politics of librandus that’s creating hurdles in the path of India’s development. As long as Librandus are alive, they will not allow Hindu Muslim unity in India. They are the virus worst than Corona. Just dump all librandus in the gutters of Karachi and India would become the fastest developing country.

    • Ak.dev: So who has been stoking the flames of Hindu Muslim strife Adityanath, Modi, Jayant Sinha, Mohan Bhagwat and their ilk or the liberals ?

  14. Population explosion is the reason for such dire poverty. Congrass ensured that undereducated but expert in sychopancy ” jhollawallas ” to hijack education policies and promoted religious bigotry by calling rioters as VICTIMS and NEVER allowed population control. And now are again shedding crocodile tears for people who are living a life of dire poverty which is their own creation.

  15. Huh, so sad. And Modi is getting credit for “excellent” Handling of the Corona crisis!

    Blame the pliant media. Blame the dumbed-down, infantile middle class who clap and bang at a mere word from the shallow Prime Minister.

  16. Another trash served to readers courtesy ThePrint. The rabid Modi haters comes up with a tirade conveniently ignoring the commonality between the measures taken like == lock down, closures of business entities, stoppage of all means of transportation, closure of educational, entertainment entities, ban on sports event –even on Olympics- 2020, closure of religious places, etc ,which most of the democratic Governments of the world– like USA, Britain, France Italy, Spain has undertaken to mitigate the spread of dreaded Corona virus based on the advice of experts from the medical fraternity. To this rabid Modi hater lock down is hostage-taking exercise . When some group of migrant workers mis advised by thepolitical outfits like of APP s and India s perennial curse – Congress party — thronged at bus stands and some of them moved on foot to their villages to unintentionally spreading virus to their home towns and village. He conveniently ignores to censures the govts. of the states like Bihar, Jharkhand who have been developing their state as Man-power supply corporations . Casteist leaders like of Lallu, Nitish are not responsible for keeping their states permanently under-developed and sending hoard of its citizens to others states as disposable work force . they are not to be censured. To this rabid Modi hater, Modi is responsible for all problems of India whether inherited or developed and originated in Wuhan , PR China. India is fighting the war against pandemic collectively , by the state governments with all their apparatus and capabilities and capacities. The statistics for India are comparably promising to win this war against pandemic with minimum possible human and material costs. The author should quarantine himself in libraries of JNU etc and should read some good books on fiction and this will help write good political fiction in future and reader will get some entertainment . It is too much to expect writing some informative stuff from authors like you. .

    • All that the author is saying is if you want to keep them where they are.. provide them the means. You see the great Modi collected 35k Crores in their name… although not sure why anyone in their right mind would trust a word with a lamb. And right now he IS responsible for them… not anyone else.

  17. The criticism sounds more fair when the author provides alternative ways .. I think if it was opened for everyone then there will be millions traveling.. do u feel that is ok ?

  18. Criminal act by this fascist govt. run by Modi & Co.!!! Even Hitler will feel ashamed of !!! Stupid , notorious govt. !!!

  19. .
    For those that believe Modi is handling this crisis effectively please read this article. The Modi led government has done nothing to solve the virus in fact the virus has spread more under the lock down and now the Indian economy is shattered into shreds and may never recover. The hopes for a twenty trillion economy is now a pipe dream!

    • Sir the lockdown was for preparing the people and government machinery for the flood of infections which will come up as soon as the lockdown is opened. We will have to live with this virus till mitigation like vaccine or medicines are developed.

  20. It is simple politics – migrant workers are not voters in the state where they work – a Bihari migrant worker can do no harm to the BJP govt in Karnataka. They can be treated as the govt deems fit. All these confused and ever-changing norms are a deliberate ploy on the part of the establishment to keep anyone from targeting any particular entity or person. They are deliberately muddying facts and hope to get away in the confusion.
    The fact that most middle class voters prefer the present dispensation led by the PM isn’t a matter of great wonder – the middle class couldn’t care less if their security and well-being is not harmed. The great wonder is why would the sub-altern class keep voting for this regime. They got hit by demo, economic mismanagement and generally poor record of job and wealth creation of the present govt. Perhaps Marx was right – religion is the opium of the masses.

  21. Politics is not the only problem. It’s Indian society that is responsible for the tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes.

  22. Good article. Migrant workers are the backbone of Indian cities – living in filthy slums, away from their families for most of the time, their children growing up without their fathers, working back-breaking long hours for a pittance. It is this that keeps costs low for businesses and enables middle class households to afford the aspirational luxuries of a booming economy. In essence, upper and middle class India exploits the competition among the teeming hundreds of millions seeking to escape the hunger of the villages of UP, Bihar, Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Unorganized, not represented by any unions, they are without rights or safety nets.

    The lockdown has exposed this heartless exploitation. Yet, there is every sign that once ‘normalcy’ returns, so will these workers – after all the pangs of hunger must be satisfied. I hope, though, that these workers will find their voice and will be able to bring pressure on the governments of their home states – known for their abject governance and appalling educational and healthcare standards – to improve conditions and create job opportunities closer to home. I hope also that thanks to such articles the conscience of society will be jogged. Perhaps our politics will be reorganized – as British politics once was, with the advent of the Labour Party – to fight for their welfare.

    • Nothing of what you hope for will happen. If things come back to normal exploitation will also resume as normal. No government or political party (including parties of labour aristocrats) will help as they are part of the same exploitative ecosystem. The only way is for individuals to become stronger so that nobody can exploit them. Start by having fewer babies or preferably none at all and see the change.

    • Señor Philip Afonso daCosta: Whilst I resist the temptation to call you a rabid, right wing fascist ranting and raving in the best traditions of a Mussolini, I must nonetheless ask you to clarify a few things. And correct some.

      Please note that the term “termite” can only be used for Muslims. A word coined by Home Minister Amit Shah to describe fellow Indian citizens from a faith he detests, viz. Islam. You may not use that term for Mr Yogendra Yadav, who is not a Muslim! That might be a violation of the terms and conditions that the Home Minister might have had for usage of the term.

      Besides the egregious error above, one also notes that you do not provide a single argument as to why this article annoys and frightens you so much. Yes Sir, a man with a name as impressive as Philip Afonso daCosta is unable to formulate even a single argument in defence of your stance. So let me ask a few doubts Mr daCosta:

      How does an article that so brilliantly argues for a class of people, indeed, a downtrodden class which ensures that your comfortable upper class life runs smoothly become an attempt to “hollow out India” ? Is empathy for the poor migrants – Indian citizens I might add – who are starving and left in the lurch by a callous government a “hollowing out of India” ? What about the men and women from your own stratum who have looted the country and parked their wealth in off-shore accounts ? Haven’t the Modis – Lalit & Nirav, the Mallyas, Amitabh Bachchans, Aishwarya Rais, Adanis etc. hollowed out India? And yet Señor daCosta believes that speaking on behalf of poor migrants is the actual hollowing out of India.

      Beware of the Señor Philip Afonso daCostas of India !

  23. Usual rubbish from a fake liberal zolawala.
    Don’t be fooled by this man’s fake concern or the pained look on his face.

    • Dear cyber-warrior! Don’t be so intolerant buddy… And you didn’t have to fake your name.

      • Well said Mr Swapnil Gautam !!!

        Another guamutra drinker from the BJP IT Cell spewing his venom …

  24. In his desire to velify the NDA government, Shri Yadav has missed out a minor issue and that is most state governments in India are run by non NDA parties. What is preventing the opposition state governments from paying the fares? And in today’s news the ultra secular West Bengal government welcomed a train from Ajmer with flowers, but has so far refused to give permission to accept trains from Maharashtra.

    • And in your desire to vilify him you’re trashing all the facts presented by him… Like a good lapdog of Beef-Janta-Party, you’re defending your bosses so aggressively. Check your facts before you speak shit. NDA state governments are more than non-NDA ones.

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