The MidWeek Essay: Indian states punish stranded workers

Published by MAC on 2020-05-12
Source: Huffington Post (2020-05-11)

Corona virus pandemic used as pretext

“Stay at home – stay safe!”. That’s the commonest mandate of governments across the world in their battles against the spread of Corona virus.

India is no exception. However, explains Chitrangada Choudhury in this vivid article, the result has been chaotic, contradictory, and far from consistent.

Workforces, drawn primarily from internally-migrating, often poor, indigenous, communities, are being forced to remain at industrial sites that cannot support them, increasingly becoming wageless and hungry, in the absence of any state support.

Just Let Us Go Home’: Tamil Nadu’s Migrant Workers At Mercy Of
Everchanging Rules And State Apathy

The lockdown, workers from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand,
West Bengal and Odisha living on Tamil Nadu’s SIPCOT estate told HuffPost
India, felt like a period of extended incarceration.

By Chitrangada Choudhury

Huffington Post

11 May 2020

NEW DELHI — The police acted promptly when a desperate plea for help by a
group of workers stranded in a state-owned industrial estate outside
Chennai circulated on social media last week.

“We have not received wages for all of April,” said a worker in the video.
“Rations are irregular, and many of us are going hungry… We have served
this nation with our hard work. Now we are in trouble. Please help us.”

The police visited the workers that very evening, and instructed them not
to make videos about themselves, several workers told HuffPost India.

In the neighbouring state of Karnataka, the state government tried to
prevent workers from returning home at the behest of the local builder
lobby; in Uttar Pradesh the government waived practically all labour laws
for a period of three years; in Gujarat, ice cream manufacturers asked the
government to slash minimum wages; while in Madhya Pradesh the state
government made it easier to hire and fire contract workers.

Nearly 7 weeks ago, on March 24, millions of workers across the country
found themselves stranded at their factories, when Prime Minister Narendra
Modi announced a punitive national lockdown to stem the transmission of
the novel coronavirus, and snapped all transport links without prior
notice. With factories shut, work suspended, wages unpaid, and food in
short supply, these workers were brought to the brink of destitution.

Now, as the cash-strapped central and state governments look to resume
economic activity by restarting industrial units, the workers who simply
want to return home, find themselves trapped once more — this time under
the pretext of reviving the economy.

To be sure, few governments have been as blatant about their motivations
as the Bharatiya Janta Party-led government in Karnataka, but interviews
with workers, rights activists and state administration officials make
clear that having done little to protect stranded workers during the
lockdown, those in power are making it as difficult as possible for
workers to leave industrial units as rail services slowly resume.

“To forcibly hold workers in place like this because they happen to be
poor, and because their departure will be bad for your profits and your
industry – can we call this anything other than a system of bonded
labour?” said Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist and the national
president of Swaraj Abhiyan. “This is one of the most vulgar moments in
our nation’s history.”

In Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district alone, over 30,000 workers are
stranded according to a recent report in The Hindu. Automobile giants like
Yamaha Motors Ltd., Hyundai Motors India Ltd., Ford India Ltd, and Royal
Enfield run assembly lines here peopled by hundreds of thousands of
migrant workers from across the country. The district, which has become
one of India’s leading manufacturing hubs, includes a sprawling industrial
park in Sriperumbudur developed by the State Industries Promotion
Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT).

The lockdown, workers from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand,
West Bengal and Odisha living on the SIPCOT estate told HuffPost India,
felt like a period of extended incarceration.

“It feels like we all have been locked up in a prison,” said AM, an
assembly line parts checker in an auto unit, speaking over the phone on
the morning of May 6. AM, who asked for anonymity, is currently stuck in a
10 feet by 10 feet room, which he shares with other workers in the village
of Palnallur, in the SIPCOT estate, over 2000 kilometres away from his
native Mau in Uttar Pradesh. Another migrant worker employed in a
packaging unit in the SIPCOT estate told HuffPost India on May 8, “We have
not been paid since March 23. It is impossible to continue like this

“This government has started running flights for Indians who are in other
countries to return home. But we are trapped here with no way for us to
return to our villages in other states.” said Dilip Mohanty, a worker from
Odisha employed at a unit called SM Automobiles in Sriperumbudur. “Do the
lives and safety of poor people like us not matter? Do they want to push
us to suicide?”

State administration officials say their hands are full. In an interview
on May 7, Atulya Misra, Tamil Nadu’s nodal officer for inter-state
movement said a May 3 order of the Modi government distinguished between
“real migrants” who were stranded far from home, and those who were from
other states but worked and had places of residence in Tamil Nadu. The
workers in the industrial parks, now without employment and unable to
return to home states, Misra implied, belonged to the latter category.

“Economic activity is returning, and most units have begun,” Misra said,
when asked for how long workers were expected to endure a ‘no work, no
wages’ situation.

“Like everyone else, we are also concerned about our life and our safety,”
said Mohanty, the worker from Odisha, alluding to the rising number of
Covid-19 cases in the district and nearby Chennai. “Just let us go home
now. We will return when the situation improves. We will return because we
need to work here. ”

‘Centre has monopolised decisions, socialised the losses’

On April 29, after over a month of holding them in place, the Modi
government said migrant workers could return to their home states.

Just two days earlier, on April 27, the prime minister had held a video
conference with chief ministers. Press releases by his government on that
meeting’s “key takeaways” include “distancing” and “staying alert”, but
made no mention of vital matters requiring national coordination, such as
the distress and the movement of inter-state workers.

“The centre has monopolised the decisions, and socialised the losses,
maintaining a complete silence as poorer states like Jharkhand, Odisha,
UP, Bengal and Bihar grapple with the impacts on migrants in this
lockdown,” said Rajendran Narayan, a professor at Azim Premji University
and a member of the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of
volunteers providing relief to migrant workers.

Trains to carry migrant workers back to their home states have begun
services in the first week of May, but there is little clarity about their
schedules, and several workers said it was impossible to know if and when
they will get a place on these trains. Workers said they had called the
helpline numbers of the Tamil Nadu government and their home state
governments several times to no avail. State officials say they are still
coordinating with their counterparts in other states.

Misra, Tamil Nadu government’s officer in charge of inter-state people’s
movement said his government’s first priority was patients, and travellers
stranded en route in Tamil Nadu.

“The picture is changing every day. State governments are grappling with a
pandemic, as well as logistical and humanitarian issues,” he said. “For
example, the Odisha Chief Minister had a video conference with our Chief
Minister some days back and has agreed in principle for workers from
Odisha to return. But it will take time. Receiving states cannot give
minute to minute consent because they also have to prepare at their end.”

Niyaj Aslam, a worker from Jharkhand’s Garhwa district who works as a
welder for the Thai Summit unit said he had got tired of calling the
numerous helplines in the past 10 days.

“We have registered on the Tamil Nadu government website, which was very
difficult for us because everything was in English, which we cannot read
or understand. We have registered on the Jharkhand government website,” he
said. “The only way we can get out is when they start trains for us.
Nobody is telling us anything about that.”

Daily confusions

Courts have added to the day-to-day confusion. This Thursday, the Odisha
High Court said “the state government should ensure that all the migrants
who are in queue to come to Odisha should be tested negative (for Covid19)
before boarding the conveyance.” A day later, on Friday, the Supreme Court
stayed this ruling.

In early May all state governments designated IAS officers out helpline
numbers to coordinate migrant movement from one or more states. But
workers like Alam and relief groups say these systems are broken.

In Jharkhand for example, Avinash Kumar, the state’s Secretary of Rural
Development, is the designated officer for movement from Tamil Nadu. He is
also Jharkhand’s nodal officer on the issue of return of all stranded
persons to the state.

When HuffPost India called Kumar’s cell number, the calls were
automatically diverted to a state helpline. The person answering the call
said, “We have no information on trains from Tamil Nadu. 24 hours before a
train is to leave, the worker will get an SMS, if he has registered on our
website. I cannot say anything more specific.”

Last week, three workers from Odisha who live at the SIPCOT estate
borrowed two motorcycles from locals and headed out in search of a bus
which might take them back to their villages in coastal Odisha. After a
futile search spanning five hours, they returned to their rooms

“We found one bus owner who agreed to take us, but he wanted Rs 1.5 lakh
and would only allow 25 people to board it,” said Manas Das, one of the
three workers who was part of the search. “He also wanted us to get
permission from the authorities here and in Odisha for the bus to move, as
well medical certificates for all of us.”

Das said he did not know how to arrange for all this paperwork and visits
to the local police station did not help.

“Also the fare works out to Rs 6,000 per person. Who has that kind of
money now?” Das said.

“We are far from our people, our village and land, and do not speak the
language of this place,” said Alam, the worker from Jharkhand. “There is
nobody here to help us, and so we feel even more desperate to return

Abandoned with no pay

When the lockdown was announced on March 24, the Modi government issued
guidelines, which included asking employers to pay salaries to workers
through the length of the lockdown. It is hard to say how closely this has
been followed.

Most workers in Sriperumbudur’s factories are employed through labour
contractors, who have largely been absent through the lockdown.

“When we ask for wages for April, the contractor says how can they pay us
when they have got no money from the top?” said a worker from Thai Summit.

Vinnie Mehta, the Secretary-General of the Automotive Component
Manufacturers Association of India (ACMA), which represents 850
organisations across the country, told HuffPost India on Friday that with
several of their member factories located in the ‘red zones’, “conditions
are very precarious and the future is unclear.”

“With nil sales in the month of April, the industry has completely run out
of working capital. Several of our members are staring at insolvency,”
Mehta said. “It is not that companies are unwilling to pay – the challenge
is how to pay?”

The Tamil Nadu state government’s circular of May 3 states that industrial
units will be permitted to begin with 50% labour, but it is unclear how
and when most units will begin work and more importantly, begin to pay
salaries. A bulk of the workers HuffPost India spoke to had been provided
no information on when work might resume.

A worker shared with us a message he had got from his contractor, which
said that the government’s latest lockdown extension had pushed the unit’s
possible start date from May 4 or 5, to May 18 or 19.

Meanwhile, as their contractors disappear on them and their employers
abandon them, workers are left relying on volunteer organisations for
basic needs like food. On April 23 for instance, workers from auto parts
manufacturer Thai Summit called an emergency helpline run by Swaraj

“The workers told our helpline that there was no food and things were
desperate,” Christina Swamy of the Swaraj Abhiyan’s Tamil Nadu chapter
recalled. “We asked him how many workers were there without food, and he
said over a 1000!”

Thai Summit did not respond to an email from HuffPost India; the story
will be updated if they do.

SIPCOT investigation

Henri Tiphagne, a human rights lawyer in Madurai said his colleague drove
to the villages of the SIPCOT park and found that the worker’s story
checked out.

“We found about 1600 workers in the villages of Selaiyur, Araneri,
Maambakkam, Vallam, Kandigai and Palnallur. They were employed by
contractors for units like Thai Summit, which manufactures ancillary parts
for bike companies like Yamaha. For 40 days, they had barely got any
relief from the administration,” he said.

Tiphagne argued that the Tamil Nadu state government’s policies to attract
industry had turned Sriperumbudur into a manufacturing powerhouse over the
past 15 years, but authorities had turned a blind eye to statutes
protecting minimum wages, contract workers, and inter-state migrants.
“Pre-corona, all these laws were being routinely violated in the
industrial estates. With the lockdown, the crisis for the workers has
reached a head.”

Most of the migrant workers who spoke to HuffPost India did not have ID
cards from their employers, which has contributed to their exclusion from
pandemic relief efforts. “The contractor used to sign us into the unit,
and sign us out every day”, a worker from Odisha, who worked as a helper
in an auto unit for Rs 5,000 a month told HuffPost India.

The abandonment of migrant workers Tiphagne points to is not limited to
Tamil Nadu. On April 3, the country’s Chief Labour Commissioner Rajan
Verma wrote to his regional counterparts that “a huge number of migrant
workers are impacted due to the lock down in view of spread of COVID-19”
and urgently sought data on their numbers within 3 days. On May 5, in
response to an RTI request from transparency activist Venkatesh Nayak
asking for this data, Verma’s office replied “no such details are

In late April, Tiphagne moved the Tamil Nadu High Court and the State
Human Rights Commission, demanding that the administration and the
employers provide urgent relief to the stranded workers.

“On the weekend, I got a call from an official in the state government
saying why are you embarrassing the government,” Tiphagne recalled. The
following Monday, on May 4, district officials arrived in the SIPCOT
estate, and distributed some dry ration kits to the workers.

“They would barely last for 150-200 people and there are over a thousand
of us here,” said a worker from Odisha’s Bhadrak district, who asked not
to be named. Several workers concurred. Mohanty said, “In over 40 days, we
have been given 10 kg of rice, 1 kg of dal and 1 litre of oil. Even that,
every room did not get. Some did.”

With a large COVID-19 outbreak this week in the Koyambedu wholesale
vegetable market of Chennai resulting in its shutdown, food prices have
also gone up now, workers reported.

“Potatoes are at Rs 80 a kilo and onions at Rs 100,” said a worker.

Workers asked how long could they subsist on erratic handouts of dry ration.

“We need money to buy gas to cook. We need money for vegetables. My family
helped me out by sending me Rs 10,000, which I shared with a few others
here,” another worker from Odisha said.

On May 5, hearing Tiphagne’s complaint, the SHRC asked the state
government to submit a report within two weeks on the conditions of the
migrant workers. The Kancheepuram Collector did not respond to multiple
calls and a text message from HuffPost India.

Musician T M Krishna who has been running a relief effort since the
lockdown said the distress of migrant workers in Sriperumbudur is
illustrative of conditions of migrants across Tamil Nadu.

“As per our survey, 63% of migrants have not been paid their wages. About
95% of them want to go back to their home states,” Krishna said,
explaining that his organisation had been helping about 20,000 migrant
workers across Tamil Nadu. “There is total confusion here with ad-hoc
decision making and no proper planning or communication.”

“The state government has been severely hamstrung in its relief efforts
and in sending migrant workers back because of the lack of financial
support from the central government, which includes the withholding of GST
revenue that is due to the state,” Krishna said.

“These workers have come from poorer states and helped to create economic
wealth here in Tamil Nadu over the last several years,” said Swamy from
the Swaraj Abhiyan. “Now when they are in distress, it is terrible that
governments have just abandoned them.”


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