COVID-19 Lockdown: With low bargaining power, migrant workers in Telangana await relief; NGOs call KCR's disbursal plan flawed
COVID-19 outbreak: Labour rights experts, activists and the advocacy group have been persistently requesting the government to implement the GO 13 in full spirit, and have called for a revised estimate of the total beneficiaries. They also seek a policy that covers every migrant worker unconditionally, without making employers liable.
Hyderabad: Twenty-six-year-old Ramesh and his wife have been giving their six-month-old baby smaller portions of baby formula to make it last longer than a week. The last box they bought meant a dip in their meagre savings.
A native of Kabirdham district in Chhattisgarh, Ramesh moved his family to Hyderabad, over 800 kilometres away from his village, in search of regular work earlier this year. Living at a construction site in Hafeezpet, where he works as a wage labourer, Ramesh has had no earnings since Telangana announced a seven-day lockdown on 22 March in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The lockdown was extended by the Centre till 14 April and then again till 3 May.
Even as the Telangana government made promises of feeding every last person, many continue to slip through the cracks. With their earnings exhausted and no way of returning home, they are living on the edges in great mental and physical distress.
"Can someone please send ration?"
"Can you send someone with money to buy milk for the kids?"
"We are barely getting by."
Over the past few weeks, NGOs and activist groups in Telangana have been flooded with distress calls from migrant workers — the hardest hit in the nationwide lockdown.
Migrant workers from Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh currently live in Telangana. Most of them earn a daily wage, working in buildings and construction sites, brick kilns, textile companies, factories, small scale industries, rice mills. Some earn their daily wages by tailoring, or being artisans, as cooks, as waiters at hotels, as painters and watchmen, among others.
On 29 March, chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao termed migrant workers "partners in the development of Telangana", and assured 12 kg rice/ata and Rs 500 as relief for all. Yet, there have been several delays, and in some cases, relief has not reached the beneficiaries, yet.
This reporter spoke to 10 workers, including construction workers, brick kiln workers and artisans. They migrated to cities, towns and villages in Telangana from states including Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh.
Pushed to the brink
As work remains suspended due to the lockdown, in several cases pending wages are yet to be paid, and the little that people have saved has been spent on purchasing essentials in the last 21 days. The lockdown has pushed the already precarious lives of the migrant workers into further crisis.
Several migrant workers have not been able to send any support to their families back home. Several others said they have reduced the number of meals they consume in a day to make the supplies last a little longer.
Ramesh and his family came to Hyderabad, along with three other families — a group of 20 people in all. They currently live in the parking space of an under-construction building in Hafeezpet near Kondapur, where they are engaged as workers. A large section of Hyderabad's IT sector employees live in city's Kondapur area mostly in gated communities and other residential units.
Five children, aged between six months and four years, live with their parents at this site. The four families use firewood to cook food.
Speaking about the time before the lockdown, Ramesh said, "For over a month, I earned about Rs 500 a day, six days a week."
"Then, the work stopped. Now, the contractor gives us Rs 500 a week, which doesn't even cover basic needs," he added, unsure if the contractor is providing this money as an advance payment or as a relief.
Ramesh tried to access the free rice, announced by the government, from the local fair price shop. "We were told that we won't get the relief rice. They said they will let us know if rice is allocated to us," said Ramesh.
The four families had kept aside around Rs 2,000 each to return home when the lockdown lifts. The families are now pushed to use that too. "First, we were told some money will be deposited in the Jan Dhan account," Ramesh said, referring to the prime minister's financial inclusion programme. "That hasn't happened. Then, they said rice and money will be given by the state government, that also has not been provided."
Nazrul is a migrant artisan from West Bengal, living in Sayyed Nagar. "Fourteen of us live together in a flat," Nazrul said. "Two weeks ago, we stood in line for ration and money. There was a very long queue and police dispersed us. Danda maara. (They beat us with sticks.) A couple of days later, we received help from an NGO."
Several reports have appeared about workers not receiving any relief. Yet, due to the fear of the police who have been tasked with enforcing the strict lockdown — the workers have not been able to go out much to follow up on the relief.
With little bargaining power and uncertainty about future employment, workers such as Ramesh and Nazrul have not been in a position to insist that their employers provide support. Instead, thousands of migrant workers have been reaching out to NGOs or helplines being run by civil society groups.
"It is significant that the state government issued GO 13 (Government Order 13) for migrant workers early during the lockdown," said Meera Sanghamitra, member of National Alliance of People's Movements, referring to the state's order to provide relief. Meera is part of the COVID-19 Advocacy Lockdown Collective of Telangana, a broad coalition of civil society organisations. "However, official assurance hasn't translated adequately into actual implementation. The GO-13 limits its reach, by capping the figure at 3,35,669 across the state," she added.
3,35,669: How did the government arrive at this number?
On 30 March, the government of Telangana issued GO 13, specifying that '3,35,669 migrant workers' will be provided with 12 kg rice or atta and Rs 500 per person in cash as immediate relief to cope with the impact of lockdown. The state, like several others, did not have a database of migrant workers prior to this lockdown.
The specificity of the number — arrived in a hurried survey conducted by the revenue and labour department, within a week of the lockdown being announced — has bee questioned by many. The targeted distribution of relief to migrants on the state's list, instead of universalising such relief, is one of the reasons why thousands of workers have not received any relief yet.
The number is a gross underestimate, said Ravi Kanneganti of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a part of the advocacy collective.
Mandal, or block-level, revenue officers have received additional requests for rations from migrant workers who were previously not listed in the survey conducted in March, they told this reporter.
In six of the 14 tehsils under the Ranga Reddy district, 8,271 migrant workers were provided rations till now. Some of them are yet to receive the cash. An additional 26,057 workers, over thrice as many, have been listed as migrants in just these six tehsils. Requests have been sent to the government for provision of rice, and money and the tehsildars are now awaiting a response.
The helpline launched by COVID-19 Advocacy Lockdown Collective has received distress calls from several groups of migrant workers totalling to at least 20,000 people in just a week's time. "Close to 80 percent of the calls we received on the helpline are from distressed migrant workers who have been calling for the assured ration and cash support," said Ravi.
Since the lockdown was announced, a network of NGOs has stepped in to provide temporary relief to the stranded workers. The local officials themselves have relied on the support of charities and NGOs to fill in due to the deepening crisis.
"Currently, if individuals or families call us, some of us are stepping in to provide immediate, temporary help," Ravi explained. "If there are groups of about 30-40 people, we are referring them to NGOs. For groups larger than that, we follow-up with the government."
The advocacy group has largely been occupied in juggling calls between distressed workers, NGOs and concerned officials. The results have been a hit and miss.
Temporary shelters and soup kitchens too have been serving migrant workers. However, thousands of workers have said that they did not receive any help. Ravi said it could be either due to the lapses in implementation or because they have not been listed.
Builders and contractors have been asked to continue paying wages to their workers, but several construction workers are indirectly employed, for work outsourced to small sub-contractors.
Ramu, a centring sub-contractor who employs five migrant workers at a small construction site, is scraping through to provide for the five workers and their families who work for him.
Some migrant workers from Andhra Pradesh have also been suffering.
Giddaiah, a native of Kurnool, 220 km from Hyderabad, migrated prior to the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. Giddaiah's ration card is still from Andhra Pradesh. A daily wage construction worker, Giddaiah tried to get the rice and cash.
"The police asked me to go to the local leaders who were distributing among their supporters," he said. "I called on three helpline numbers and then went to the ration shop also. They said they don't have any orders to give it to people from Andhra Pradesh."
Conundrum for construction workers
On 26 March, Telangana's Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development KT Rama Rao called upon the construction and infra companies to provide 'food, basic amenities, and healthcare needs' for the workers, failing to do which, he said, will attract action.
Even though GO-13 doesn't state it explicitly, the officials in charge of disbursal of relief said that the primary responsibility of providing food and shelter to the construction workers is on the builders.
"As per the new directives, we have been asked to not give relief to construction labourers working on-site and company workers (industrial labour) under GO 13," a tehsildar from Ranga Reddy district said, on the condition of anonymity. "We are awaiting clarification."
This was corroborated by senior officials in the labour department, and officials from other departments.
"Wherever workers live near a construction site, the builder has to provide ration and shelter," said E Gangadhar, the joint commissioner of labour, Hyderabad zone. Both the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act and The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act state the same. Even in case of epidemics and pandemics, it is the primary responsibility of the employer, he said.
"At least, 17 notices have been issued to employers in the Ranga Reddy zone for not providing relief to the migrant workers. If we don't receive replies, we will file cases," said Joint Commissioner of Labour of Ranga Reddy zone R Chandrasekharam.
The Cyberabad Commissioner of Police VC Sajjanar's office, too, has sent a note to the media saying "legal action will be taken against the concerned companies including construction company management and labour supervisors".
Most workers usually migrate using personal networks. Employed by a small thekedar (contractor) or by a subcontractor, the workers often have no contact with the builder.
"In many cases that we have been following up, it has been observed that the contractors are behaving arbitrarily and without fear of law," Meera of NAPM said. "The initial supply of rations to workers was minimal. The request for refills hasn't been fulfilled. There is a limited role being played by the government in overseeing this."
'Universalise unconditional support'
Labour rights experts, activists and the advocacy group have been persistently requesting the government to implement the GO 13 in full spirit, and have called for a revised estimate of the total beneficiaries. They also seek a policy that covers every migrant worker unconditionally, without making employers liable.
"Creating a targeted list of beneficiaries instead of universal coverage for all migrant workers (and poor) who need it, will inevitably lead to exclusions. There have been several instances where ration shops have turned down workers who approached them for rice and cash benefits," said Kiran Vissa of Rythu Swarajya Vedika arguing in favour of universalisation. "It will be easier to have a system in place to cover all those who need relief. Government should decentralise this further, empower the grassroot level officials to take decisions and do quick distribution," he said.
The activists have also been urging the government to expand the relief provided. In times of no work, and no wage assurance, Rs 500 is grossly inadequate to meet all needs of the migrant workers, including rent, other bills, cost for gas, medical bills etc.
"Add some pulses and other essentials to the relief basket," said Kiran. "We can't expect the workers to get by with just rice. Also, the government should extend a second round of support to everyone unconditionally."
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