It is better not to be pessimist. But one thing is certain that to what extent the latest intervention of Supreme Court will help the workers seeking refuge in their native places, ameliorate their condition and minimise their miseries is a matter for deep concern.

On Wednesday in its intervention in the matter of the plight of the migrant labourers while the Supreme Court observed; “there is a concern that workmen should not be left without pay’, news has also started trickling in that with partial lifting of the lockdown a section of the representatives of the employers are invading the places of the labourers to return to the places where they worked before fleeing.

This move has certainly not come as surprise. Their return is inevitable as they have no work in their native places to survive. They would not have deserted their work places if the employers and owners had adopted a humane approach to them. In fact the workers waited for nearly two months weathering the ordeals of starvation and deprivation in the hope that the work would resume soon
In its order the Supreme Court on Thursday said the government must strike a balance between employees and managements on the payment of wages during the lockdown period. It also ordered the extension of its earlier interim order that said “no coercive action shall be taken” against employers for the non-payment of wages until the court resolves the issue on June 12 by a detailed judgment.

But it is too late. The apex court could have saved the situation and the labourers if it had responded to the earlier requests of the petitioner to intervene. The condition has deteriorated to such an extent that the workers have lost their trust in the employers. It is not that all the labourers have turned averse to the idea of coming back, the fact is majority of them are sceptical of the future development. They fail to muster courage to face the previous situation once again.

No doubt corona has aggravated the situation and forced the workers to the brink of starvation, the fact of the matter is the crisis had started building up four year back. On November 25, 2019 the Union government had confessed on the floor of Lok Sabha that nearly 144 labour intensive companies have been shut. The government refrained from taking action to salvage the condition.

While the companies had adopted an aggressive posture and not willing to reinstate the labourers, the government was finding it helpless. Recently while the workers were fleeing the cities, the government issued a circular warning them not to remove the labourers
But this was merely an eye wash. The government knew that the companies and the real estate operators were not in the position to undertake fresh work and invest money. In fact the circular has been challenged before the apex court by the managements of several companies on the grounds that it would result in a closure of companies as many of them have no production/manufacturing activities during the present crisis and moreover under the Disaster Management Act the Centre has no power to prosecute the management. What has really been shocking is their telling the court that the purpose of the circular was essentially to prevent the exodus of crores of migrants to their home towns.

People were migrating in crores, they wanted the industries to continue… the notification was to make the workers stay put… they would remain only if they are paid. We have seen how the Karnataka government had cancelled the trains which were to take the labourers to Bihar and UP.

If the government had been really sympathetic to the workers it could have utilised the ESI which has Rs 80,000 to 90,000 crores as surplus fund for paying the distressed workers. True speaking the involved payment of wages to those who do not have basic amenities of life like food, water, shelter and clothing.

The government has been resorting to populism. It was never sincere and sympathetic to the workers. Had it not been the case the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta would not have accused the critics and described them as “prophet of doom” and vultures. This is what the Solicitor General of India calls those who draw attention to the worst humanitarian disaster India.

What was really shocking was he criticised High Courts which upheld the cause of the workers, saying that they “are running a parallel government”. What Mehta called “running a parallel government” is a slew of directions from as many as 19 High Courts to governments — at the state and the Centre.

It is a statement that has done immense harm to Modi. But he is least bothered as he nurses deep hatred and contempt for those who have suffered. How skewed has been the idea and perception of Modi is clearly manifest in his checking the deaths. On March 24 he had given the impression that his government would check the crisis within 21 days. But with each passing day it is turning monstrous. The government has miserably failed.
According to Census 2011, there were 454 million migrants in India, doubling over the 1991-2011 period. After 2011, estimates in the Economic Survey indicated that migration within India continued to increase manifold and migration within states is around four times that across states. The workers are migrating to the cities, but there is no enough work in proportion to the population of migrants. It was perceived that migration would empower and enhance their purchasing power. But it does not appear to be happening as exposed by corona

The government increased the allotment for NREGA but it is not in commensuration of the increase in the labour force in rural areas. There is no doubt that NREGA would fail to meet the challenge.

A 2017 report by the working group on migration constituted by Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, provides solutions, there is a need to reorient the working of the Construction Workers Welfare Board (CWWB) in each state. The funds’ utilisation is low, at 21 per cent. A comprehensive database of migrant workers needs to be prepared on a war footing.

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