Workers Disowned By Their ‘Own’ Government

S V Singh //

“Since no such data (number of migrant workers died during lock down) exists, there is ‘no question of giving compensation’ to victims’ next of kin”, declared Santosh Gangwar, Union Minister of State, Ministry of Labor and Employment in Parliament on Sep 14, 2020. Government, however, conceded that more than 1 crore workers returned to their native places due to lock down. “Narendra Modi government failed India in its hour of need, both economy and people”, The Print came out with a very apt headline. There cannot be a more cruel, irresponsible and insensitive statement in response to the unprecedented migrant crisis of a scale never witnessed since partition of India. There would hardly be a government on this earth to have gall to utter these 4 deadly words, Question Does Not Arise (QDNA)!!

Let’s see what’s the fault of these migrant workers for having subjected to this life and death battle quite literally. They were, many of them still are, peasants or artisans working at their respective native places. It was capitalist ‘development’ that snatched tools from their artistic hands by flooding the market with machine made tools and also deprived them of their tiny piece of land by making the farming over it unviable. Even if they are still clinging desperately to that piece of land, they cannot survive over its produce. Natural desire to survive and need to douse fire of hunger, then, pulled them out of their huts in villages and pushed them towards cities to work in industries. It needed a will power of steel to leave their near and dear family members behind and embark on a journey which had no fixed destination, no house, no place of work decided. There was, however, no reason to ponder over that as the only other option was a certain death out of hunger. What’s the hardship that they didn’t endure, which emotional trauma is there that they didn’t suffer, what’s the challenge they didn’t brave!! The steely will power, unflinching determination and never say die attitude of the proletariat is not without reason. Their life makes them invincible and face any adversity head on. Living together with 10 other comrades in a tiny, filthy room and standing at nearby round about daily in the morning, waiting for the buyer of their labor power, the only commodity left with them, surviving somehow to repeat the same exercise and also sending some money back home to enable their kids survive, becomes their daily routine.  They were in no way, directly or indirectly, responsibly for the deadly pandemic of Covid19. Virus came to the country via planes, the interior of which, these workers have never seen. Why was their survival not taken into consideration while satiating the insatiable hunger to appear on TV to address the nation and then announcing countrywide lockdown of 1380 million lives? Why was absolutely no time spared to think as how will crores and crores people can be confined behind ‘Lakshmanrekha’? Why was there no planning in that direction? Who is responsible for their life shattering ordeal? Who is responsible for the death of 990 human beings who perished on that desperate endless journey? The labor minister didn’t bother to enlighten the nation before denying any compensation, disowning about half of the population and before declaring ‘Question Does Not Arise (QDNA)? As we are left with no alternative, let us take the government’s declaration positively. It is implied in the labor minister’s statement that the government wanted to compensate the dying, suffering workers but is unable to do so as there is no data available. The government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ remained engrossed in the ‘service of the nation’ during lockdown and could not record the data of the migrant worker’s death and despair and that is why workers are not getting any compensation. Let us help our government on this issue as a responsible citizen of the nation.

Here Is The Data You Need, Mr. Minister!! 

Since the central government is willing to provide compensation to the migrant workers who died on their eternal journey back home because of gross irresponsibility and monumental insensitivity on the part of the government as declared by the Minister, Labor and Employment on the floor of Lok Sabha but is unable to proceed for want of requisite data, let us provide the complete grim statistical data[1] with every detail.

  • DEATHS: During the period the cruel lock down was in force without any planning and thinking about the consequences till July 2020, a total of 990 migrant workers died on their life and death LONG MARCH due to circumstances directly attributable to lock down. These are the non Covid-19 deaths. Complete details of the dead persons viz. name, age, place, state and reason of death and also the source of information are provided in the link; .
CAUSE OF DEATHSNumber of Deaths As of 31.07.2020
Starvation and Financial Distress (combined)216
Lack of Medical Care77
Road or Train Accidents209
Death in Shramik Trains96
Death in Quarantine Centers49
Lockdown associated Crimes18
Police Brutality12
Alcohol Withdrawal Related49

SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network) activists have really done commendable work by recording this data of monumental man -made catastrophe for the perusal of not only the present state power but to entire posterity. Some of the details of the gory statistics as follows:

  • Within a span of just 19 days between 09.05.20 to 27.05.20, there were 80 deaths on board the Shramik Special trains as per official data from the RPF. Zonal officer of railways acknowledged that ‘Heat, exhaustion and thirst are among the primary issues faced by the passengers on board these trains’.
  • At the time the country wide lock down was announced on 24th March, 50% of the stranded workers had rations sufficient for less than a day and 72% of them said that their ration will suffice only for 2 days.
  • 96% of the stranded workers had not received any ration from the government, be it central or state government.
  • 78% of the stranded workers had less than Rs.300 left with them.
  • 89% of the stranded workers have not been paid salary by their employer at all. 44% calls received by the SWAN from stranded workers were “SOS” of such acuteness that they are left with neither a single paisa nor any food to eat.
  •   Stranded workers at Surat informed; “Our employer still compels us to work saying, if you don’t work, you won’t get food. Food is offered only once a day.”
  • In response to a PIL (civil diary no 10801/2020 filed by Harsh Mandar and Anjali Bhardwaj vs Union of India, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) remarked, “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”.
  • With each passing day of lock down the distress call for food were getting increased and getting more acute.
  • “Unko zyada zarurat hai humse, unko dijiega. Hamare paas itna ration hai ki aur do din chal jaega”, those having 2 days ration left saying to SWAN volunteers to help those of their comrades first who have no ration at all. Look at the spirit of hungry stranded workers!!
  •  A petition was filed in Supreme Court in the first lock down itself praying the court to direct government to ensure wages for daily wage workers. The petition was rejected on 21.04.20 stating that ‘they are happy with the arrangements made by central and state government’.

Migrant Workers Are Entitled To Due Compensation For Their Death And Devastation

There are, therefore, total 990 tragic deaths due to lock down in our country duly documented with every detail by SWAN volunteers. Number of injuries, job losses and financial loss and trauma is humongous. It has to be reiterated, shouted from every roof top again and again that total 990 workers died for absolutely no fault on their part. They were made to die by the sudden declaration of country wide cruel lockdown without any planning for crores of those who eat in the evening only after they toil in the day. No work for the proletariat means no food. The compensation act effective from Feb 4, 2020 stipulates details of the Extent of Liability, “On the occurrence of any accident as defined under these guidelines, the Department shall, whether or not there has been any wrongful act, neglect or default on part and notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, be liable to pay compensation to such extent as prescribed below:

  1. In the event of death or permanent disability resulting from loss of both limits: Rs.10. 00, 000/- (Rupees Ten Lakh)
  2. In the event of other permanent disability: Rs.7, 00, 000/- (Rupees Seven Lakh)”

Total amount of compensation for the 990 deceased migrant workers, therefore, comes to Rs.99 crore (990×10,00,000). There is no record for the other losses suffered by the migrant workers but the government has ample resources and means to collect the same with the help of social organizations like SWAN and trade unions. Most of the terms of payment of compensations to dependents as defined under Employee’s Compensation Act, 1923 are being fulfilled by the data collected and documented by SWAN and other several organizations submitted with the Supreme Court during the course of PILs.  The workers who lost their lives were the sole bread earners in their respective families and denying any compensation on the excuse of ‘no data is available hence question of compensation does not arise’ is inhuman and cruel. In case due compensation is not paid urgently then this may result in the death of 990 families not the death of 990 individuals. PM declares in public meetings in Bihar almost daily these days, ‘see, we cared so much about migrant workers, we sent them home at public expense!!’ Total compensation amount of Rs.99 crore for the life of 990 families is not a big deal for a mighty, in comparison to what our resourceful GOI committed to ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas’ doles out to the Corporates as a matter of routine!! Let’s see…

  • According to a News Click report dated 9th July 2019, during Modi-1 (2014 to 2019) over 4.3 lakh crore tax relief was provided to the corporates by squeezing funds from various welfare schemes like MGNREGA, Anganwadi, Midday Meal Scheme.  Corporate concessions went on increasing in every year’s budget; 2014-15 Rs.65607 crore; 2015-16 Rs.76858 crore; 2016-17 Rs.93643 crore; 2017-18 Rs.108785 crore. This is not a new phenomenon, it is continuing as usually since UPA times. During UPA-2, this amount of tax concessions provided to the corporates amounted to Rs. 3.52 lakh crore. It is going on since Nehru’s times but the scale of this dole out caught public attention when a statement to that effect was explicitly found in the budget speech of the year 2006-07. Modi government, in its motive to prove their credentials to their masters and in order to prove better than Congress got overenthusiastic and increased these free bees by 22%. These bourgeois parties differ only in their upper get up, content remains exactly the same. No question is ever asked as is now being asked in case of migrant workers now, “Question Does Not Arise”. Interestingly, one cannot find any mention, any proposal, any debate to stop this or reduce the amount of this squandering of public money in the budget speeches of even the opposition parties. Rare unanimity is witnessed among all bourgeois parties when there comes the question of ‘helping’ the corporates.
  •  Modi government offered a 1.45 lakh crore bonanza to corporate by tax rate cut as per report published in Bloomberg dated Sep 20, 2019.  Corporate tax was cut from 30% to 22% to stimulate growth which fell down to 5%, six year low. This happened, please remember, well before the Corona Pandemic and countrywide lockdown when industrial growth has fallen down to -22.6%. Government never bothers to examine and let the nation know how much growth was, actually, stimulated, how much new jobs were created by such a mammoth bonanza amounting to Rs.1.45 lakh crore.
  • “7 lakh crore Bad Loans Written Off In Decade, 80% Of It In Last 5 Years: RBI” reads a headline in Logical Indian dated 20th April 2019. Corporate bad loans are written off out of equity capital of the banks and then the government infuses capital in banks. This has now become a regular occurrence, being repeated every year. Besides getting capital support from the government, banks make up these losses by increasing the bank charges for all their services availed by all other customers. It means that relief is indirectly provided to the corporates out of national treasury which will be made good by levying further taxes on the poor people and other portion of the corporate bonanza is compensated by increasing service charges on each and every bank service which is again born by the common people. In both the processes burden of the loss inflicted by the rich is born by the poor. The same promoters of the company, then, float another company and avail larger size loans to repeat the same vicious circle. Shiv Pratap Shukla, Minister of State Financed informed Lok Sabha while answering a question that during last 3 years Public Sector Banks have recovered Rs.10000 crore from customers for not maintaining balance and availing ATM facilities beyond stipulated free transactions. Private banks are looting the customers more severely on this score. Who happen to be those who fail to maintain minimum balances? Not Adanis and Ambanis but the poor, hungry and destitute only. The banks who keep providing ‘relief’ to the corporate by way of waiver of interest, writing off humongous amount of bad loans did not spare even the migrant workers. In several of the cases minimum balance recoveries were affected even from the cash help that was provided to them by the social groups to purchase food items.
  •  On May 14, 2020 announced a mammoth relief package of Rs.20 Lakh Crore, being 10% of the GDP. An amount of Rs.1.7 Lakh Crore was declared to be part of that package which was earmarked as cost of free distribution of wheat and rice under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package. One very curious point of this big bang package is that detailed break up of that whopping amount of Rs.20 lakh crore was never provided and no analyst was able to calculate and add up to reach even nearer that amount of Rs.20 lakh crore. This means that in this announcement too, there is sizable inclusion of peculiar Modi rodomontade to make the announcement sound as big bang. During that announcement, however, government conceded that total 12.2 crore jobs are lost because of Pandemic lock down but unfortunately, there is no relief provision provided for those 12.2 crore workers for loss of job. Most importantly, no need was felt to even talk about those migrant workers who succumbed during the most tortious journey and for those who survived somehow after undergoing unspeakable pain and hardships as if they are not human beings and as if they do not belong to this land. 

Workers Earn Their Rights Only By Fighting Unitedly

The reason to pay compensation to the families of the migrant workers numbering 990 who perished on the way back home after declaration of unplanned, thoughtless and cruel lock down are so overwhelmingly convincing and justified that even the most insensitive and anti -worker government of the day could not deny this outrightly. ‘Since no data is available, question of payment of compensation does not arise’, this is, in fact, a confession of another gross irresponsibility on the part of the labor minister. Why is this vital data not available with such a resourceful and powerful government, a Vishwaguru since Aug 5 2020, when everything is under surveillance and government knows who is eating what in the evening? This entire issue of payment of compensation of Rs.99 crore @ Rs.10 lakh each to 990 deceased workers is made out as if entire treasury of the GOI will be emptied by this measure!! Is payment of Rs.99 crore to save the life of 990 extremely poor and desperately needy families is such a big deal for the government of a country of 138 crore people? These days, whenever any relief is announced for the corporates it is always in the unit of ‘lakh crore’. This newly popular unit, actually, means putting 13 zeros after one, Rs.10000000000000 (10 billion)!! Does rupee have different value when given to poor in comparison to when it is given to the rich!! Data is very much available, Sir, thanks once again to the splendid job done by SWAN team. Denying due compensation now even after being confronted with the requisite data is like disowning our own people who are the real producers of everything on this earth. The most tragic aspect of this horrible ordeal of the migrant workers is that no fault can be attributed to them in any manner whatsoever. The class character of the government also stands exposed in no uncertain terms. Look at the stark difference when freebees are doled out to the Ambanis and Adanis of the country in the units of ‘lakh crores’ and how the question of compensation to destitute, hungry families of the migrant workers is dealt with. In the former case, concerned minister announces ‘relief packages’ glee fully and no account is taken afterwards what happened to the ‘benefits trickling down’ bluff or ‘generating employment’ farce. What impact will it have on the health of national treasury, not a trace of concern is ever perceptible when issue of ‘relief’ to the corporates comes. Even the reserves of RBI are not spared. Any penny taken out of national treasury is precious, however, in case it is going to be paid to the workers even for their very survival. Who has filled these treasuries, by the way? Who moves these machines? Who creates surplus value which is usurped by the capitalist to fill their coffins? Mountains of their capital in their balance sheet get bigger and bigger and they keep climbing the ladder of the world’s most rich, how? Even during lockdown when GDP growth is -23%, Mukesh Ambani’s accruals have increased @Rs.90 crore an hour!! Who is the actual wealth creator? Bourgeoisie too knows the real facts, there is no confusion. The workers who were denied free rail tickets to go home in March and April were sent air tickets by industrialists to come back soon when lockdown opened and production was to commence, wheels of machines were to move!! Every right that the workers possess, each is earned by them after long, arduous, death defying struggles. This case of getting due compensation is not going to be any different. ‘File of compensation is closed’ as far as the government is concerned. For workers, however, their files are never closed. These are closed only when they give up fighting. Their file is their life. They know how to get the closed file, opened. A few words on the deafening silence worn by the trade unions on this issue. Swearing by the interest of the proletariat in speech after speech is one thing and sharing the pain, humiliation and sufferings of the proletariat is quite another. Migrant workers did not only lose their jobs and their lives but also lost their dignity. They stand tormented emotionally. They stand beaten, demoralized, shattered and utterly humiliated. They have been treated inhumanely. They are crushed to dust. They bear piercing deep wounds on their psyche. Not standing with them now in their dire need and delivering high voltage sermons as usually to organize and lead them will be unpardonable crime. The historical journey henceforth is to be led by the proletariat only. A demoralized army can win no battle. This issue of compensation is a test case, the most just cause to fight for. Let’s rise to the occasion, join ranks and wage a massive united nationwide movement for the cause of providing just compensation to our martyred comrades. It will be a national shame in case families of 990 workers who laid their lives on line do not get any compensation. They are the real Corona Warriors. All the trade unions and all well- meaning people of the country need to launch a nation-wide massive joint movement and force this Modi government to pay compensation to these genuine Corona Warriors. Let’s extend our unconditional help to migrant workers, the real producers of the national wealth, advanced class of our times in their fight for justice.

[1] We put on record our sincere thanks and admiration for the entire team of SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network) for collecting meticulously the valuable data and allowing us to use the same. 

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 7 / November 2020)]

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