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The Indian State’s greatest weakness: A failure to recognise basic dignity of migrant labour

Legally SpeakingThe Indian State’s greatest weakness: A failure to recognise basic dignity of migrant labour

Right to dignity is an inseparable part of right to life and assures self-respect of individuals in all transactions.


Over the past 5 weeks, heart-rending reports and visuals of migrant labour and those in transit have haunted us. With this sudden and unplanned lock down, lakhs or perhaps crores of migrant workers have lost their livelihoods, income, security and what is most regrettable–their dignity.

Immediately following the lockdown announcement, hundreds of thousands of workers began walking back to their villages with their modest possessions bundled on their heads, only to be halted at city and state limits. For fear that they would spread the virus to villages and remote districts, they were forcefully sequestered into hurriedly created so-called relief camps and shelters, and compelled to live in the most abysmal conditions, in utter violation of social distancing norms, dependant on meagre food hand-outs. The law began treating anyone on the roads as violators of the lockdown, exposing the poor to maltreatment and violence by the State for simply attempting to make their way to the security of their homes and family. The Union Home Ministry’s Order dated 19 April, 2020 (under the Disaster Management Act) to the states that migrant labour in relief/shelter camps be registered with local authorities and their skill mapping carried out to find out their suitability for work, was to treat them as “nonpersons”, who have no say, neither worthy of the basic courtesy of an explanation, nor worthy of their right of choice.

Penalised for attempting to make their way home, many persevered despite restrictions on their freedom of movement. Lakhs of “invisible” persons (or those whom we chose to treat as invisible) became visible with reports chronicling the trauma and hardship of 14 migrants hiding inside a cement mixer desperate to leave Maharashtra and to reach Lucknow; of 6 migrant workers, cycling 1200 km from Surat (Gujarat) to Fatehpur (Uttar Pradesh) evading state border check posts and taking side roads through hamlets; of one Jadav Gogoi (a worker from Assam) completing a journey of 2,900 km from Gujarat, partly on foot and partly on trucks, to reach his hometown in Nagaon district; of 50 porters from Delhi (including one Samirul), pedalling their “thelas” for a distance of 1,180 km to reach their villages in Madhubani (Bihar); a 150-odd group of electricians, plumbers and painters (including Awadesh Prasad Rai,  Luvkush Kumar, Sujan Kumar) setting off from Chandigarh, cycling more than 1,000 km to their villages in East Champaran (Bihar), crossing the Yamuna on makeshift rafts and tyres provided by locals after shelling out Rs 200 per person.

With another extension of the lockdown appearing imminent, and tensions and anger mounting, on 29 April, 2020, the Union Home Ministry finally directed that stranded migrant workers, students, pilgrims etc., who did not have symptoms of coronavirus could return to their home states on buses. Only when the impracticality of this proposed movement by buses, both in terms of the large numbers and the huge distances involved, invited sharp criticism, did the Centre relent and allow travel by special trains. The operation of these Shramik Special trains was again mired in controversy. Without going into the claims and counter-claims of whether this train travel was or was not subsidised by the Centre, and the discriminatory treatment vis-a-vis foreign evacuees whose full air fare had been paid for by the Centre, the fact is that the migrants, who had been unemployed for over 40 days, were made to pay for train fares by borrowing or by calling for money from home. Additionally, in some states like Maharashtra, the migrants were required to produce fitness to travel certificates as a pre-condition to travel, which in the midst of the lockdown exposed them to paying Rs 300 to Rs 400 for these certificates. The Delhi Government went a step further, by insisting upon on-line registration by migrants desirous of travelling and a screening to determine when they moved to Delhi as a pre-condition for permission to travel. Nothing can be more divorced from reality or unmindful and heartless than asking the poor illiterate migrants to access the internet for on-line registration and fill a page-long detailed form.

It is almost as if realising that reverse migration would be a long time coming, there is reluctance on the part of the State to deprive the economy of workforce, and thus this treatment of migrant as captive fodder to fuel the economy. This callousness was fully and openly brought out by the decision of the Karnataka government on 6 May, 2020 to cancel all trains for migrants following a meeting with the representatives of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India and the subsequent statement released by the Karnataka Chief Minister that since construction work and industrial activity have to be resumed “unnecessary travel of the migrant worker has to be controlled”. Following this announcement migrants, having no choice, started walking back to their native villages in UP–a distance of 1,800 km (the distance between Berlin and Moscow)–with no certainty of surviving this journey without food or money. As per Google Maps, this journey (without breaks) should take 15 days and 3 hours.

Through all of this, the greatest weakness of the Indian State has been moral: a failure to recognise the basic dignity of migrant labour and the poor and by treating them as a resource and not as human beings. The Indian State has conveniently forgotten that every human being has an inherent dignity by virtue of his or her humanity, irrespective of status sex, age, race or ethnicity, religious or political belief. This inherent dignity demands that certain human rights should and ought to be protected.

The Indian Judiciary has also not covered itself in glory by failing in its duty to protect the rights and dignity of migrant labour citing the ground of non-interference in policy. In a petition seeking payment of minimum wages to the migrant workers for the duration of the lockdown, the Supreme Court asked, “Why wages are required when meals are being provided by the government?” This response coming from a Court which ruling on the police action on a sleeping crowd at Baba Ramdev’s rally at Ramlila Maidan, had broadened the ambit of the right to life by holding that a citizen has a right to sound sleep because it is fundamental to life!

Likewise in a public interest petition seeking immediate steps to help thousands of migrants to return home (filed prior to the 29 April order), and the subsequent plea on the difficulties faced by these migrant workers being made to pay for train fares, the Supreme Court was content to accept the Centre’s submission that “at the moment no such statement can be made as to what amount is being taken from the migrant workers”, held that “[I]n so far as charging of 15% of Railway tickets’ amount from workers, it is not for this Court to issue any order under Article 32 (enforcement of fundamental rights) regarding the same, it is the concerned state/railways to take necessary steps under the relevant guidelines”.

This is the same Article 32 of the Constitution under which this Court, in the not-so-distant past, had expanded the scope of Article 21 guarantee of “freedom to life and personal liberty” by holding that “the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes with it, namely the bare necessities of life such as, adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading, writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and co-mingling with fellow human beings”.

Article 21 of the Constitution of India is the heart and soul of our Constitution. Its scope has been widened in an ever-expanding horizon by various judicial pronouncements. The right to dignity incorporation has become inseparable part of right to life and this incorporation of dignity within the meaning and ambit of right to life assures self-respect and recognition of individual in all transactions, in all relations, at all levels and everywhere. It is from this notion of “human dignity” implied in the right to life that in the past the Supreme Court has derived a catalogue of human rights.

Further, the underlying principle of human dignity can also be seen in Article 14 of the Constitution which states that “[T]he State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. This right to equality is a guarantee of equality as human persons, a guarantee related to their dignity as human beings, a guarantee against any inequalities grounded upon an assumption or a belief, that some individuals or classes of individuals, by reason of their status, their racial, social or religious background, are to be treated as inferior to other individuals.

But the thing about dignity, that feeling of worth or self-esteem that all of us seek, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, is that “dignity is not felt unless it is recognised by other people.” Sadly, neither the Executive nor the Judiciary have recognised this, and the biggest casualty of this pandemic is the loss of human dignity. As a 22-year-old from Godda (Jharkhand) who, while narrating the despair of being sequestered in Goa, with no money and no job and a virus outside, said, “Why not just step outside and die of corona, at least we will be counted somewhere?”

Ketaki Goswami is an Advocate, Sidharth Luthra is a Senior Advocate and former Additional Solicitor General of India.


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