COVID-19: subsistence of labourers requires our participation in extraordinary distributive justice
Driving through the vast expanses of Nimar in the middle of March, two visuals are inescapable. First, this region in southern Madhya Pradesh is barren, with almost no agriculture at this time of year. Second, villages are emptying out as families board trucks in search of labour. Naturally, the two are linked.
Barkheda is a small village in the district of Khargone in Nimar. Like nearby villages, most of the population here belongs to the Bhil, Bhilala, and Barela tribes. The Barela tribeswomen and men tell us that in a week’s time 60–70% of their village will be empty. People have come for Holi, but are already preparing to go back to work. We hear similar stories from the four villages we visit across the district. Only those too old or too young to work will be left behind. Children under the age of four will likely be taken along. Most people will work as unskilled or semi-skilled labour in cotton agriculture across Maharashtra. Some people we speak to have heeded the call of contractors that visited their village. Others have been migrating for years and have secured their employment for the next couple of months through family members or contractors they are familiar with.
To be clear, many of these families own land. Three to four acres on average. However, with no irrigation, the lands are only cultivable for a few months in a year. Post-Diwali, the migration begins. People generally return only for Holi if they can find continuous work. Following a week of festivities, they head out until the rains make their own land cultivable for a few months.
There is some labour work available in nearby villages, but the pay is significantly lower: 100 rupees a day, compared to 200+ rupees a day that they will receive in Maharashtra. Women receive 20–30% lesser as a norm. 70–80 locally, and 250 rupees for the work that men get 300 for in Maharashtra. The wages these migrants receive — even in Maharashtra — is much below statutory minimum wages, where employers must legally pay about 350 rupees for a day of unskilled labour. These pay norms are routine for most migrant labourers across India. They are used to the terribly low pay and poor working conditions. Only when they find themselves in a situation of forced labour (“Jab hum fas jaate hain…”) — either through non-payment of wages, restriction on movement, or bonded labour — do they seek escape (“…hum bhaagne ki koshish karte hain”).
With 120 million people migrating for labour annually in India, seasonal migration is here to stay. No matter how terrible the conditions are at work sites, ~10% of our population decides that what they get is better than what they have locally. The poor in general, and labour in particular, are of course entitled to plenty of support in India. Minimum wages, houses under the PM Awaz Yojana, 100 days of guaranteed work, and free primary health care to name a few. It’s a hard journey for people who need it most to avail these. ‘Awareness’ is always an issue, but it was clear from the stories we heard that even for the aware, ‘access’ requires skillfully navigating a part corrupt and part impenetrable labyrinth of a system. People, therefore, migrate for basic subsistence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the whole world hard. There is little contention though that these seasonal migrant laborers will be hit the hardest. With the lockdown, millions of workers have been left stranded. Most live on or near construction and factory sites that have now shut down. Even with risk of the virus, people are traveling in droves back to their villages, as there is nothing left for them in the city. No work, and little government support through entitlements in a place they do not belong to. It is natural then that their minds will be occupied less by the health risks, and more with the stress of economic survival. The virus itself may not affect these people. But, the non-availability of essential services and evaporation of the meagre safety net that some fortunate families have built through years of labour will.
There are a few things that need to be done on an urgent basis to support the most vulnerable in our nation. Firstly, from a COVID-19 perspective, ensuring they have the right information to save themselves and their communities. Many of these people are returning from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune — places where the virus has made its home. If there is any transmission in these villages, with non-existent healthcare services and poor immunity, there will be little hope of survival. Second, we need to ensure financial and non-financial subsistence. Some governments have already announced free grain through the PDS; they must also ensure timely disbursal of financial entitlements.
The government will try and support the migrants, but this will rarely be sufficient. We are in an unprecedented and surreal time, and it will be critical for the privileged, the middle and upper classes, those with security and surplus to partake in distributive justice. While almost everyone is at a loss during this pandemic, the fight for survival is borne by a few. Partaking in this distributive justice includes continuing to pay those that work in our houses and factories, and sharing our surplus with those in need. Now that we have clapped from rooftops and balconies, let’s contribute to care for people, just as our health workers are caring for the sick.
I would urge you to provide tangible support to those in need, or organizations that are supporting those in need. One way for you to contribute is by donating to Jan Sahas, an organization that is supporting daily-wage workers returning from Delhi and parts of Maharashtra through this link. I urge you to make a contribution here, or to support those around you. I will continue to try and share contribution links of organizations I can personally vouch for.
Hopefully, in a few months we can put this crisis behind us. And hopefully, the most vulnerable in our society will be able to as well.