Centre to strengthen legal framework to help migrant labourers

The Modi government is all set to bring a new law to address migrants' woes

[File] Migrant workers along with their family members walk to their villages, due to no means of transport, during the nationwide lockdown amid coronavirus outbreak, near Anand Vihar railway station in New Delhi | PTI [File] Migrant workers along with their family members walk to their villages, due to no means of transport, during the nationwide lockdown amid coronavirus outbreak, near Anand Vihar railway station in New Delhi | PTI

The Union government is considering registration of all migrant workers in a centralised scheme to enable them and their families the benefits of social security schemes, as applicable under the Employees' State Insurance Corporation. A new updated code on social security, prepared by the labour ministry, is waiting the approval of the Union cabinet. 

Said Union Minister for Labour Santosh Gangwar to THE WEEK, "The plight of migrants is a cause for concern. Like you, it is worrying us as well. But, you need to realise that we are doing everything we can to help them.” 

The government, he said, is bringing an updated law for migrant labourers, which will take into account all their needs. “The legal framework for the same will be strengthened. The provisions have been already cleared by the standing committee of Parliament," said Gangwar. A group of ministers, led by Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot, has recommended a series of measures to encourage migrant workers, who have returned to their native villages, to come back to the cities and resume work.”

The new provisions had to be brought in as the government felt the current legal framework—Inter State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979—was not enough, as it doesn't help the individual migrants and their families in a comprehensive way. The new law, once it comes into place, will help workers enjoy benefit of portability across the country and, like in organised sectors, they will get social security and health benefits. 

"All fund will be managed by the labour ministry and we will address all requirements of migrants. You will come to know about the nitty-gritty of it soon. The new law will come into being this year itself. Migrants will not have to suffer like this for long. Our government will always be with them," said Gangwar. 

In 2008, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA I had passed the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act, which was meant to create a database of unorganised workers. Apparently, the law had some inherent flaws that created hurdles in its implementation. 

The bill should have been passed then after correcting the flaws, said former Union law minister Veerappa Moily. “In fact I only drafted that law in 2008. The migrant crisis today involves various agencies. So an appropriate legislation, or an ordinance by the Centre, is required. Both the states that are sending the migrants, and the states that are receiving them, are acting as if they have no stake in the welfare of migrants. All concerns of the migrants should be addressed by the Centre at the earliest,” Moily told THE WEEK.

A section of the BJP, in fact, is not happy with the way the migrant issue has been handled by the Narendra Modi government. Said a BJP leader, “The visuals of helpless migrants are all over the place. We could have handled it in a better way. This crisis should have been anticipated even before the lockdown. There are so many special trains for the migrants now, and the railways is doing a great service. But such services for the migrants could have been provided a bit earlier. Also, some states did not do anything to support the migrants, which is so shameful. But, at the end of it, the blame always comes on the Centre. Our national president [J.P. Nadda] is holding video-conferences with state functionaries, MLAs and MPs in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, to help these migrants who are walking on foot or coming by trains. Many of them are being helped, but the pleas are unending. The fear of the virus, among a section of our party functionaries, is also causing problems, as some of them are not ready to come out. This is more so in some of the hotspots."  

The Supreme Court on May 28 took suo-motu cognizance of the migrant crisis prompted by the national lockdown. It came down heavily on the Centre and the states for mismanaging the situation. All originating states have now been asked to provide migrant workers free food, shelter, while also providing them the transportation cost to go back to their native states. The apex court stressed on coordinated efforts between the Centre and states to deal with one of the worst humanitarian crises the country has ever seen. All this, after poignant visuals of exhausted migrant workers came out from different parts of the country over the past few weeks. At least ten migrants have died in the recent days and many have been rendered jobless. 

The Centre has assured the Supreme Court that it is working closely with states for regular transportation of migrant workers. "This is an unprecedented crisis, and we are taking unprecedented measures," said Solicitor General Tushar Mehta during the hearing. Mehta said around 50 lakh migrants have been moved to their homes by special trains and another 41 lakh workers were sent via road.  

In a widely shared video that shook the nation's conscience, 15-month-old Rahmat is seen pulling the cloth placed over the lifeless body of his mother at Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar, thinking that she is alive. Rahmat’s mother, Avreena Khatoon, 35, from Marandangi village in Katihar district of Bihar, died on board the Sharmik special train that arrived in Muzaffarpur from Ahmedabad in Gujarat on May 25. While her family alleged that she died due to hunger and heat in the train, the railways and the Muzaffarpur district administration said Avreena was ill several days prior to the journey. 

After the Patna High Court took suo-motu cognizance of the video, the Bihar government has now informed the court that Avreena was mentally unstable and had died a natural death during the course of her journey. The Railways has said it should not be blamed for the incident. 

Said Union minister of state for railways Suresh Angadi to THE WEEK, "This is because of lack of coordination between the states. In this case, Gujarat and Bihar. It was the duty of the Gujarat government to make sure that no migrant who was ill boarded the train in the first place. The state governments concerned should take care of migrants till they reach their destination. Blaming the railways is not fair. We are following the instructions of the Union health and home ministries. Our employees are working day and night for the betterment of the migrant labourers. Food and water are being provided to them in trains. Only better coordination between states will prevent such incidents from happening."

Kirit Solanki, BJP MP, Ahmedabad West, told THE WEEK: "What has happened with Avreena is really sad. The visuals of the son calling her dead mother were very disturbing. We all are feeling bad. I am sure before she boarded the train from Ahmedabad, the authorities here would have checked her health. I don't know how she died."

Leader of the opposition in Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav, has announced a financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh for both the children of Avreena. This after the Katihar district administration sanctioned a sponsorship and foster care scheme for Avreena's children. Under this scheme, Rs 2,000 for each kid shall be transferred every month in the account of their maternal grandparents who are looking after them now.

Katihar MLA of the BJP Tarkishore Prasad said to THE WEEK that all help will be provided to the family of Avreena. "We are as much sad as you on this matter. The district administration is providing them all the help. This death should not have happened. There should be a proper investigation conducted as to why this happened and who is at fault. The chief minister, I believe, has already spoken to the prime minister about this incident."

Prasad said he will be visiting Avreena's home on Saturday. "As an elected representative it is also my responsibility to see to it that they get all the help they need in the days to come," he said.