Activists demand long term planning for migrant workers

Hyderabad: Prof P L Vishweshwer Rao, Vice President of Telangana Jana Samithi, and Dr Cheruku Sudhakar, Telangana Inti Party, are demanding mitigation of the sufferings of migrant workers, long term planning for such natural disasters and immediate measures to prevent deaths.

“More than 300 people have died because of the lockdown. They have died of hunger, financial distress and exhaustion from walking long distances,” they have said in a letter addressed to the Human Rights Commission.

Prof. Rao has expressed his concern over the economic impact of the pandemic. Various factors such as suicides due to hunger, fear of pandemic, fear of infection, loneliness and lack of freedom of movement are affecting people.

The two activists say, “The need of the hour is that the governments of both the Centre and in States, should formulate long-term policies for the migrant labour since there can be no economic development without the contribution of the labourers.”

The professor suggested universalization of the public distribution system which should ensure that no one sleeps on empty stomach. The supply must not be restricted to rice, the government also give pulses and oil. The restoration of mid-day meal should be made a priority to save the school going children.
Dr Cheruku suggested, “There must be a proper health management system of the migrant workers and employment grantees should be given post lock down.”

“The migrant labourers should be included in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act” urged Vishweshwer Rao.

He asserted how community kitchens must be established by the government in association with NGOs or the local community ensuring that the poor gets minimum food.

Moreover, the duo demanded setting up grievance cells which should help the citizens access the government facilities without any facing difficulties.

The Letter to national Human Rights Commission

Hyderabad, May 4, 2020
To:
The Chairman
National Human Rights Commission
New Delhi

Sub: The plight of the migrant labour in times of Covid-19 and the need to mitigate their suffering, and the need for long-term planning by the governments of the Centre and the States, to prevent more deaths from hunger and disease, and to rehabilitate them on emergency basis__Reg.

Dear Sir,
The country is staring at a much greater disaster in the coming months as the economic impact of the Covid-19 seeps down to every segment of society. The most vulnerable being the poor, they will pay a very high price in terms of death, distress and suffering. As reports of the costs borne by the poor and the migrant labourers in the past weeks of lockdown show, there have been more than 300 deaths due to various reasons as the migrant labourers tried to return home to their families and villages as they were rendered jobless by the lockdown.  According to the figures compiled from newspaper reports, more than 300 people died because of the lockdown due to factors such as hunger, financial distress, exhaustion from walking long distances to reach home, due to police atrocities for lockdown violations, inability to get timely medical attention for other pre-existing health issues.

There have been staggering number of suicides as well, caused by fear of infection, loneliness, lack of freedom of movement, and alcohol withdrawal during the lockdown. For instance, unable to handle withdrawal it has been reported that as many as seven people died after consuming after-shave and sanitizer lotions. Also, several migrant labourers, stuck in quarantine facilities, away from family and home, resorted to suicide fearing infection and the stigma attached to the disease.

As of May 1st, 2020, the database of ThejeshGN website compiled the following data of deaths:
 
·         Starvation and financial distress (eg, inability to sell farm produce: 34
·         Exhaustion (walking home, queuing for ration or money): 20
·         Denial of timely medical care or unavailability of medical help: 38
·         Suicides (fear of testing positive, loneliness, etc) : 73
·         Deaths associated with alcohol withdrawal: 45
·         Police atrocities/state violence: 11
·         Lockdown related crimes (including vigilantism for violating lockdown rules): 11

·      Migrants returning home dying in accidents on the way: 40
 (https://thejeshgn.com/projects/covid19-india/non-virus-deaths/)
It must be underscored that these deaths are most likely an underestimate considering the self-imposed restrictions of the media in reporting news reflecting on the Central government. Besides only a few language media, eight to be exact, including English and Hindi, were monitored especially those that were available online. (https://thejeshgn.com/)

The scale of the humanitarian tragedy associated with the lockdown is not fully known. But whatever little is known, it does point to the enormity of the humanitarian crisis that is looming ahead. There is real worry that there will be starvation deaths in the coming months and deaths from other pre-existing conditions. Therefore, the government needs to be prepared with plans and measures to meet the crisis head on.

Unfortunately, migrants were never part of the mainstream of the society. They have been neglected by policy makers and the government despite their massive contribution to the building of the infrastructure across the country, to the development of cities and to the country’s economy. Experts have termed the existence of a massive work force of the migrant labourers but neglected and unacknowledged, as another India. They explain that while one India comprises the privileged, better off, vocal and the much visible, the other one that is that India that has been in the shadows, unrecognized and uncared for.

Therefore, the need of the hour is that the governments of both the Centre and in States, should formulate long-term policies for the migrant labour since there can be no economic development without the contribution of the migrant labourers.

There is an urgent need for the government to step in to go to the rescue to the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers rendered unemployed by the Covid-19 lockdown. Both the State and Central governments should formulate policies and spell out the steps they plan to take once the lockdown is lifted.
The following demands/steps must be taken by the government to render relief and succour to the most vulnerable in the country which is its Constitutional duty. Also, very importantly, the economic recovery from the Covid-19 will take several years and hence, the situation of the poor and the distressed will need to be addressed with empathy and as a fulfillment of the governments’ Constitutional duties.

1.      The universalization of the Public Distribution System should be adopted to ensure that no one goes hungry and to deal with the hidden hunger among large numbers of the poor. This is not difficult to adopt since the godowns of the government are overflowing with foodgrains. As many as 75 million tonnes are lying in the government warehouses, which is more than three times the national reserve requirement of the country. Besides, the national reserve is meant for emergencies like the Covid-19 which has dealt a death blow to the already suffering people of India.

2.      Supply not just rice and wheat but also pulses and oil to strengthen the nutrition levels of the poor

3.      Restore the mid-day meal scheme across the board

4.      Strengthen the public health management as health care is as essential as food and is a fundamental human right as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5.      With migrant labourers returning home from different parts of the country, employment guarantee should be given to every adult man and woman for a number of days as they have been completely deprived of their livelihood for no fault of theirs.

6.      The majority of migrant labourers are in the unorganized and informal sectors such as daily wage work. Now that they have lost their jobs they are facing hunger, starvation, disease and an uncertain future.

7.      These migrant labourers have no social security in the sense that they have no assured source of meeting their minimum needs, no medicare, and even no access to the Public Distribution System since they keep moving, sometimes with family, to different states to earn a steady livelihood.

8.      Most of the workers remained unpaid even for the days they worked in view of the sudden imposition of the lockdown.

9.      The migrant labourers, both men and women, who have been displaced from their work due to the lockdown should be included in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

10.  All adults in rural areas should be provided with employment in view of the disaster that has struck the entire country, the burden of which has disproportionately fallen on the poor, both in rural and urban areas.

11.  Community kitchens should be established by the government in association NGOs or the local community to ensure that the poor and the vulnerable are assured of minimum food.

12.  Grievance Cells should be set up to help the citizens access the government facilities set up for them without any break or problem caused by red-tapism and/or inefficiency of those in charge of the programmes.
Constitutional protection to the poor

The above demands need to be seen in the background of the provisions made in the Constitution regarding the right to livelihood, right to food and the right to be free of hunger.

1.       The NHRC itself has ruled that the Right to Food is inherent to a life with dignity, and Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees a fundamental right to life and personal liberty, should be read with Articles 39(a) and 47 to understand the nature of the obligations of the State in order to ensure the effective realization of this right.

2.       Article 39(a) of the Constitution, enunciated as one of the Directive Principles, fundamental in the governance of the country, requires the State to direct its policies towards securing that all its citizens have the right to an adequate means of livelihood, while Article 47 spells out the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people as a primary responsibility. The Constitution thus makes the Right to Food a guaranteed Fundamental Right which is enforceable by virtue of the constitutional remedy provided under Article 32 of the Constitution.

3.       The NHRC has additionally taken the view that there is a fundamental right to be free from hunger and that starvation constitutes a gross denial and violation of this right. Holding ‘misgovernance’ – resulting from acts of omission and commission on the part of public servants, to be the reason for starvation deaths occurring in different parts of the country — the Commission has stated that these are of direct concern to it under the provisions of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.

4.       Persons living in conditions of poverty and hunger have often been found to be suffering from prolonged malnutrition. Even when their deaths could not, in strictly clinical terms, be related to starvation, the tragic reality remained that they often died of prolonged mal-nutrition and the continuum of distress, which had rendered them unable to withstand common diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea. The Commission considered this situation to be all the more painful in view of the fact that granaries of the Food Corporation of India were overflowing.

5.       Food is a basic human requirement which everyone needs to survive. The right to food is often called the most basic human right and has been universally accepted as such. The realization of all other rights depends on the right to food. The right to food finds a place of importance in the Constitution.

6.       The Supreme Court of India has observed that it forms an integral part of the right to life, guaranteed under the Article 21. Besides Part IV of the Constitution stress on public health and nutrition which embodies within its ambit the right to food.  There is favourable case law from India’s Supreme Court that has prompted Indian States to distribute food according to the welfare schemes in place. It legitimized the right to food and through the enactment of the National Food Security Act, it secured it as a legal entitlement under the National Food Security Act.

7.       The Constitution of India both explicitly and implicitly provides for a right to food. Article   47 found   in the  Directive Principles  division  of  the  Constitution,  creates  a  “duty  of  the  State  to  raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health.” Given the aspirational and non-justiciable nature of the Directive Principles, however, most of the development of the right to food has  occurred  within  the  context  of  Article  21,  which includes a right to life and is located within the enforceable and justiciable Fundamental Rights section of the Constitution.

8.       The Supreme Court has explicitly stated in various cases that the right  to life should be  interpreted as a  right to “live with human dignity”, which includes the  right  to food and other basic necessities. Certain directive principles such as right to an adequate means of  livelihood  under  Article  39,  right to work, education and  public  assistance in cases of unemployment,  old  age,  sickness  and  disablement  and  in  other cases of undeserved want under Article 41, living wages for workers under Article 43, and the principle relating to the duty of the state to secure social order for  the  promotion of welfare under Article 38 are thought to be sufficient to ensure right to food.

In view of the above, we urge the NHRC to accordingly direct the government to consider the issues raised in this letter and to implement the demands made herein.
Thanking you
Yours sincerely,

  1. Prof P L Vishweshwer Rao, Vice President, Telangana Jana Samiti political party
  2. Dr Cheruku Sudhakar (leading doctor and surgeon),
    President, Telangana Inti Party (a political party)
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