India's migrant workers are protesting erasure of their rights amid lockdown. A mapping project documents their resistance
The dominant narratives portray India's migrant workers as perpetual victims without agency, who need to be helped out by others. This charity framework misses a crucial dimension of the current crisis, where there have been hundreds of instances where migrant workers came onto the roads protesting the injustices being meted out to them, trying to change the oppressive conditions in which they are forced to live.
Ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced in light of the coronavirus outbreak in India in March, reports of the plight of one of the worst affected groups of citizens — migrant workers — have been making their way into social and mass media. Thousands — left stranded without a source of livelihood, sustenance or safe spaces — began their long, brutal marches out of the cities they helped build and propped up with their labour and towards their hometowns and villages. Some didn’t survive the march.
During this crisis, while citizen-led relief efforts and the State’s belated response have been highlighted, what hasn’t received as much attention is the initiatives by migrant workers’ groups themselves.
"Following such distress, migrant workers haven't just remained silent," says 26-year-old Sunil Tamminaina from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who has been working with other students, research scholars and activists on migrant workers’ issues under the aegis of the Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network (MWSN). "The dominant narratives portray them as perpetual victims without agency, who need to be helped out by others. This charity framework misses a crucial dimension of the current crisis, where there have been hundreds of instances where migrant workers came onto the roads protesting the injustices being meted out to them, trying to change the oppressive conditions in which they are forced to live. Expectedly, these protests had little coverage in the mainstream media. The few migrant workers protests that were covered were also covered only as a violation of physical distancing norms or sometimes with communal angles attributed to them."
This narrative is just what one of MWSN’s recent initiatives, the Migrant Workers’ Resistance Map, seeks to counter. The Map, which went online on 20 May, is an attempt to document acts of resistance by migrant workers since the beginning of the lockdown. As of now, the team, with their limited resources, has been able to document over 150 protests involving over one lakh migrant workers. Sunil voices the team’s belief that the real numbers could be far higher, as the scant media coverage imposes an inherent limitation.
MWSN has been primarily engaged in relief efforts and running a multilingual helpline for migrant workers. It was only in the second week of May that the group began working the Map by collating reports of acts of collective resistance among migrant workers. Multiple news sources — including vernacular media and social media handles of various news agencies — were scanned for relevant reports and cross-checked for consistency. MWSN volunteers who have been following the crisis closely since the implementation of the lockdown and those who previously helped organise protests for workers’ rights in the past were also able to share their inputs. Sunil says that one persistent challenge has been in how “resistance” should be defined for the project. Ultimately, for the Map those collective actions of migrant workers “in which they expressed dissent by holding public protests or demonstrations” were included.
The Resistance Map presently carries information about the locations of reported instances of migrant workers’ resistance, along with an indication of the size of the protest, and links to associated news articles. MWSN is hopeful of ideas like creating repositories for various dimensions of these protests being implemented soon, making the project a go-to resource for people studying migration, workers’ rights activists, and those interested in evaluating the government’s handling of the crisis. “In the medium to long run, we wish to use this project to help evolve a better understanding of the possibilities of organising and collectivising amongst migrant workers,” says Sunil. “Since a large majority of them are in the informal sector, as well as those in the formal sector facing challenges due to their socio-economic — and at times cultural — vulnerabilities because of being migrants away from their homes, organising has so far been a challenge.”
Neemrana (Alwar)| Rajasthan
Around 17 people from Jharkhand's Palamu district, employed in a factory in the Neemrana industrial area of Alwar, Rajasthan, were forced by their contractor to report to work from 1 May. The contractor refused to clear their dues and prevented them for leaving home. The workers set of on foot for Jharkhand on the night of 14 May, only to reportedly be beaten by the contractor and forced to return to their settlements in Neemrana's Moladiya village. Vijay, one of the workers, sustained injuries to his head during the beating. Their phones were taken away. The workers somehow managed to communicate their plight to neighbours who then sought help.
The SHO of the local police station denied any knowledge of the incident, so volunteers from the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) contacted the office of SP and Collector, demanding stringent action in the matter. As a result of this intervention, the police lodged an FIR under Section 323 & 341 of IPC against the contractor for allegedly assaulting the workers. The contractor and the principal employer were asked to clear the workers’ dues and make arrangements for their return home.
Thiruvallur | Tamil Nadu
Minarul Sekh from West Bengal was contracted as a construction worker for an electrical company in Thiruvallur. Minarul and four other workers reached the site a month before the lockdown was imposed and lived within the company campus. Once the lockdown came into effect, Minarul and the others’ movements were curtailed: they couldn’t go outside the campus and were forced to purchase the overpriced rations supplied by the company’s security guards.
Even after the Shramik Special trains began running, Minarul and his colleagues were isolated on the campus without any information. It was only after a migrant workers’ helpline in the state interceded that they could reach out to the Thiruvallur Police, and were allowed out of the site after Minarul spoke to an engineer with the company. The five workers were not paid for the entire duration of the lockdown.
When the company resumed functioning towards the end of Lockdown 3.0, Minarul decided to start work as well, since the train schedule and token system was erratic, uncertain and opaque. Minarul asked his supervisors to clear the workers’ unpaid dues before they restarted. Instead, all five workers were fired and evicted from the campus.
Minarul refused to be cowed. With his colleagues, he sought help from the helpline, stayed on the road for a couple of days before moving from shelter to shelter, approached various police stations. On one occasion, the authorities dumped them at the Thiruvallur Railway Station under the guise of being admitted to a shelter. Minarul and the others did manage to find one that took them. A week later they were on board a train to West Bengal.
Palavanjipalayam (Tiruppur) | Tamil Nadu
A group of 26 people from West Bengal's Sandeshkhali area in the North 24 Parganas district, working in a garment factory in Palavanjipalayam, had been waiting to journey home since the lockdown began. The group included men, women, and a three-year-old child.
Their employer hadn’t paid them during the lockdown so they’d had to use their savings during this time, for essentials. After a visit to the railway station to seek information about a train ride back home, they found they had been locked out of their accommodation by their landlord. The reached out to some COVID-19 support group(s) and were allowed back in their rooms after local members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) intervened.
However, the respite was short-lived as the same situation occurred a few days later. This time, the workers took shelter in some abandoned rooms. The rooms were unsafe and had no cooking facilities, but the group had no other recourse. Briefly, they heard of a West Bengal-bound train leaving Tiruppur on the morning of 7 June 2020 but were later informed that the train had been cancelled due to an insufficient number of passengers.
The workers are now desperately attempting to raise funds to take a bus back to West Bengal. The charge for the bus rental is Rs 1,90,000, which amounts to about Rs 5,800 per person if they can get 33 passengers. Currently, with only 26 of them, the fare amounts to more than Rs 7,000 each, which is unaffordable for many of them.
The workers’ homes and families in West Bengal have also sustained severe losses due to Cyclone Amphan, making their need to return all the more urgent.
— As told to this correspondent by MWSN member and Delhi-based workers’ rights activist Sumit Kumar
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