Even as some state governments like Karnataka suppresses the informal sector worker, the UN has raised the red flag of growing modern slavery, suppression of information and hitting sustainable development goals (SDG).

The UN special rapporteur on the Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Tomoya Obokata, says “the severe socio-economic effect of the Covid-19 is likely to increase the scourge of modern-day slavery, already impacting over 40 million people before the pandemic”

Post-pandemic, the IMF says that 400 million are slipping globally into severe poverty.

The Karnataka government’s move to keep the nearly 3 lakh labourers in lockdown, as told by Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren, under pressure from the builders and cancel relief trains from Bengaluru for them strangely enough is a reflection of the global problem. It symbolizes as if they are bonded labourers. The mindset in Maharashtra against the Bhaiyyas from UP and Bihar has been contemptuous though now in the face the crisis, Gujarat and Maharashtra are also applying brakes on their movement.

Not behind are chief ministers of Haryana and Punjab. They have dialed UP CM Yogi Adityanath seeking to hold back the labourers in their states. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has shown his disinterest in their return.

Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa later announced Rs 1610 crore package for floriculturists, barbers, washermen, weavers, auto drivers and building workers announcing a one-time payment of Rs 2000 to 25000 “for restarting the economy”. Later Yediyurappa allowed the trains to move as the poor started moving and he was under pressure.

Adityanath clamped an ordinance shelving all labour laws for three years to help the industrialists. It means no worker can complain even against non-payment of dues. Gujarat had done it earlier

Disdainfully the poor are rejecting the packages of the chief ministers and want to move back whether trains are run or not. Have they lost trust in the system?
The stress on MGNREGA is also increasing. Its allocation was reduced to Rs 61,500 crore this year from Rs 71,000 crore in 2019.

The scenario is typically against the poor labourers. The restlessness is spreading in Nagpur, Surat, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ferozabad and Garh Mukteshwar (UP), Barmer (Raj), Katni (MP) and other places. They are marching towards their homes in Jharkhand, Bihar, eastern UP, Odisha and West Bengal defying lockdown at times even clashing with the police.

Supreme Court judge, Justice Deepak Gupta, on May 7 says that the laws and legal system are geared in favour of the rich and powerful. It was the poorest of the poor who suffered the most during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. The underprivileged needs SC attention. Judges could no longer afford to live in ivory towers, he says.

The reverse march of crores to Indian villages since March 25 testifies the abysmal conditions and insecurities they are having. India’s real estate, MSMEs, large industries or the smallest courier firms are being run by these distressed people, who moved to urban centres for some better conditions. According to the annual report of MSME ministry, 11 crore (110 million) are employed in 6.3 crore MSMEs of an estimated 18 crore informal worker population. They did not have a day’s earning amid lockdown. They are among the marchers or now travelers by scarce “shramik expresss” trains to villages.

Also five crore retailers are in distress as their losses accumulate to Rs 7.5 lakh crore, according to Pravin Khandelwal, general secretary of retailers body, CAIT. A goldsmith or a textile or garment seller selling vegetables is a common sight in many localities.

It needs freedom of the press to ensure that such distresses are known and not suppressed, says UN secretary general Antonio Gueterres. He in his world press freedom day message says, “It is critical to countering covid-19 pandemic misinformation”. As lockdown has prompted a spike in unemployment throughout most of the world, “many previously vulnerable workers have been pushed into precarious situations lacking any protection”.
The factors have increased vulnerability to exploitation, which may amount to enslavement, Obokata says.

A glaring example of the scenario has come from West Bengal. About 15 labourers from seaside resort Digha left their workplace walking on the railway track to avoid the local police enforcing lockdown. They travelled 70 km to Birbhum, where they were picked up by the government rail police (GRP) to be dropped back from where they started. Similar stories have come from MP, where the labouteres reportedly awaited to be ferried back to its borders. As on Thursday night 500 workers were stopped at Gujarat-MP border.

It is heart wrenching to find a few-day-old babies also in the crowd as state apparatuses are not allowing them to use any vehicle. Some even pedaled down on bicycles from Sangli in Maharashtra to Odisha. The labourers who were not accommodated in trains from Hyderabad started walking back to Bihar, Jharkhand and UP in disgust told a TV reporter that they would not come back even if now job or food is offered to them. They say they want to go back to the emotional security of their home.

The pandemic has affected billions of such informal workers, Obokata says. “And between financial shocks and inadequate government, children face an even higher risk of exposure to the worst forms of child labour”. Who does not know how the builders are thriving in the national capital region on the toils of children and exploitation of women?

India has to treat the poor with care and concern. They are self respecting people and are proud of whatever they do. Denying them rights or minimum starvation wages may cause deep fissures. It can become a social crisis. The problem needs to be solved with empathy. It is beyond comprehension why a health crisis be dealt like a law and order issue.

Inaction by governments, the UN expert, Obokata, says would lead to sharp rise in the number of people being pushed into slavery because of corona crisis and is to hit sustainable development goals (SDG).

The Narendra Modi government is apparently initiating steps to help the people. But the prolonged lockdown is thawing every activity. The system is crumbling. The nation wants a functional state. Let us end LD and resume normal operations. The nation can chart out the best path as free functioning begins.

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