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An Indian State is Forcing Migrant Workers to Stay Back So They Can ‘Revive’ the Economy

Yet another episode of India’s apathy towards the very people who help build its thriving cities.
06 May 2020, 8:24am
An Indian State is Forcing Migrant Workers to Stay Back So They Can ‘Revive’ the Economy
Migrant workers wait in a lineup to enlist for transportation to leave for their hometowns during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in Bangalore on April 30, 2020. Photo:Manjunath Kiran / AFP

When faced with an unprecedented crisis, it's a natural human tendency to simply want to go home. But in India, it appears that this basic requirement comes with strings attached for the very migrant workers who help build India’s economy, but are suffering the most under the current lockdown by not only losing their livelihoods but also not being able to go back home. Over the last few days, though, some states have been easing the lockdown restrictions and arranging special trains to send them back home. But now there’s a new roadblock that prevents them from leaving.

While the Indian government has been criticised for charging migrant workers stuck in coronavirus hotspots for tickets to get on the special trains destined for their hometowns and villages (and then sneakily lying that they’re bearing the costs), latest reports show that there’s one Indian state that has simply refused to let the migrants leave so that they can go back to work despite the pandemic and increased fears of infection. In Karnataka, right after Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa “requested” migrant labourers to stay back, trains scheduled to transport migrant workers to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were promptly cancelled.

On Tuesday, the Karnataka chief minister claimed that the coronavirus situation was “in control” as compared to other states. “Industrial, construction, and trade activities need to be resumed outside areas marked as red zones. Hence, labourers may avoid unnecessary travel back to their natives,” he said in a press statement. Meanwhile, a senior government official admitted to The Indian Express that these trains were cancelled after the Bengaluru government held a meeting with the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India.

By justifying their actions as an important step to “revive” the economy, the state is basically trapping migrant workers in the city, and thus forcing them to go to work even if they don’t want to. In the meantime, realising that safety measures and precautions such as giving workers protective equipment still do not exist in the unregulated construction sites or unorganised projects, migrants are afraid to return to work and are cognisant of how the people they're working for rarely have their best interests in mind. This is yet another glaring instance of India’s apathy towards its working class, a way of commodifying people for economic interests, where the only options for labour forces is to keep working or die trying to survive.

The reopening of the economy and the burden it will put on migrant workers is something that the experts have been concerned about for a while. Some have even predicted scenarios of escalating exploitation and modern slavery.

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