Plight of the Stranded Workers

India’s urban economies depend on migrant labour who should not be treated like “problems” during a lockdown.

Beyond the blame game, political allegations and castigations for violating lockdown norms, certain stark factors remain undisputed in the context of the mass gathering of migrant workers near Bandra station in Mumbai, and in Surat and Hyderabad on 14 April. The same attempt at desperate gathering was witnessed on the same day in Mumbra, Mumbai’s far-off suburb. News reports said that in Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, migrant workers had begun walking on railway tracks to their homes, from urban centres. In the days following, newspapers carried reports and pictures of migrants walking along the Mumbai–Agra highway, aiming for their homes in the northern states. What almost all had in common was their sheer desperation to go home to be with their families, dwindling or no resources and, in many cases, physical hunger. More significantly, these episodes brought home what “social distancing” can mean for people who live in densely populated slums with bare basic amenities, with nearly seven to 10 of them in flimsy 10×10 feet rooms, and how they will be able to maintain this distancing as the summer season advances mercilessly.

Why is it so hard to understand that these workers want to be with relatives and family and in familiar surroundings during a time that appears frighteningly uncertain and insecure? A section of the print media has done a magnificent job of collating the life stories of these workers in this time of lockdown. These news reports bring home how these workers, who form the backbone of the informal economies of Indian cities, are now feeling trapped in what was their choice of place to work and earn for their families. In Mumbai, as in other large urban centres in the country, these workers live in rented shanties and tenements whose landlords themselves cannot afford to survive without the rent. They are employed in small industrial units, eateries, garment sewing shops and other enterprises in the informal sector which have either closed down or are barely surviving. They also make up a large part of the transport and hospitality services. In Surat, they work in the diamond and textile hubs. During every calamity—natural or man-made—the daily wage earners are the first to be hit. What a lockdown of weeks together would do to their lives is not beyond imagination for those who are in touch with this reality.

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Updated On : 20th May, 2020

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