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Sarada Lahangir

With the surging of Corona graphs in India, fearing the long term lockdown and loosing livelihood, thousands of Odia migrants across country are returning to their home towns with distress and despair.

On the 23rd of April, a migrant laborer died near Borigumma of Koraput district while returning to his native village from Hyderabad. The deceased was identified as Shyam Bhoi, 48, from Gantabahali village in the Sinapali block of Nuapada district. Shyam Bhoi and his wife had gone to Hyderabad few months ago to work in a brick kiln unit in Telangana.

Deceased's Shyam bhoi 's wife Khira Bhoi
Deceased’s Shyam bhoi ‘s wife Khira Bhoi

“For few days my husband was not keeping well. We wanted to come back but the owner did not allow us. Luckily, we escaped and boarded a Bus at Hyderabad. The Bus left us in Chandili, on Odisha–Chhattisgarh border. Then we took an auto from Chandili. On the way near Borigumma, my husband’s health condition deteriorated and he passed away,” said a heartbroken Khira Bhoi, wife of the deceased. Thereafter, with help of the local authority, the body of the deceased was sent to her native village.

On 24th April, another migrant worker form Ganjam district died on his way while returning to his home town. The deceased was identified as Bhagirathi Goud from Mirigilendi village in Begunipada block of Ganjam district. Bhagirathi along with his 15-year-old son and his wife had gone to Surat to work in a Power loom unit. Due to the rising number of positive cases in the second wave of Covid -19 Pandemic, partial lockdown, shutdown and night curfew were imposed in Surat, so apprehending last years’ crisis, Bhagirathi’s family boarded the train to his home town. On his way back to Odisha through Okha-Puri Express, Bhagirathi fell sick when the train was crossing Vishakhapatnam railway station and soon afterwards he breathed his last.
Bhagirathi’s son sought the help of the people at Berhampur railway station to get the body out of the train, but no one came forward to help him. Bhagirathi’s son Sagar, 15, eventually pulled the chains and the train stopped at Balugaon station in Khordha district and with the help of his relatives and local police, the body was sent to his village.

Bhagirathi Gaud body at railway station
Bhagirathi Gaud body at railway station

Narrating the incident, a teary-eyed Sagar says, “We had borrowed money for my sister’s marriage. We did not have any source of income so we went to Surat and were working at a power loom unit there. Last time due to Covid-19 pandemic, the loom was totally shut down and we returned home with much difficulties”. We didn’t have any source of income in the village so left with no option, we had to go back to Surat. But we did not know that this time we will lose our bread earner.”

Daughter of deceased Bhagirathi Gaud
Daughter of deceased Bhagirathi Gaud

These two cases are just the tips of the iceberg of the plight of the thousands and lakhs of Odia migrants who are forced to go to different states in distress condition to earn their livelihood.

No of Odia Migrants

While there was no official data for the inter-state migrants in the country available till 2020, an estimate for 2020 have been made by Professor Amitabh Kundu of Research and information System for Developing countries. According to his estimates, based on the 2011 Census, NSSO surveys and economic Survey show that there are a total of about 65 million inter-state migrants and 33 per cent of these migrants are workers.

Likewise the Odisha govt does not have any specific official data on its migrants. A rough estimate of some of the NGOs working in this field says that around 20 lakh Odias are working in different part of the country and a sizeable chunk of them are seasonal Migrants. More than 70 percent of them are from the Poverty stricken, Hunger zone of K-B-K (undivided Kalahandi -Bolangir – Koraput). Out of 20 lakh, about 3.5 lakh Odia migrants are from Ganjam who work in textile units and power looms factories in Surat and other parts of Gujarat.

“Last time, Odisha reported 10 lakh migrant returnees. I think, some 60-70% informal workers including seasonal migrant workers have re-migrated between September 2020 – January 2021 period. If lockdown is not enforced again, an estimated 5-6 lakh migrant workers may return to the State. If India goes for stricture lockdown in coming months, the number of returnees may increase,” Umi Daniel, Director, migration and education, Aide et Action International estimates.

Govt.‘s Preparedness for Odia Migrants

During the first Covid wave migration while the daily infection in India was 500, it is now 3.3 lakh during the second wave. The migrants returning from high caseload regions may carry risk of infections. Here the preparedness of the state government becomes very vital to handle the situation. But couple of days ago, while briefing to the media Susanta Singh, Rural Development, Labour Minister admitted that the Govt doesn’t have any specific data on Odia migrants who have re-migrated this time after August 2020.

Interestingly, Singh’s statement itself shows how prepared the government is to handle this situation.

However Umi Daniel says, “During the 1st wave, government was on high alert for the return of migrants. Senior officers were appointed as nodal person for each destination states for coordination. Web portal and helpline were introduced for registration of workers, surveys by local workers were done to ascertain info from migrant families, TMCs were set up on war footing. This apart, Sarpanches were empowered to take appropriate steps etc, migrant workers from other states working in Odisha were also reached out. During the second phase, the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had asked the collectors to open up TMCs and increase vigilance on incoming migrants from endemic neighborhood states for possible Covid infection.”

Legal framework for Migration

The Indian Constitution has considered mobility of the individual as a fundamental right under article 19(1) on the basis of which an individual gets freedom to go anywhere and settle anywhere within the Indian territory. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act 1979 deals with the migration of the people within the country. The applicability of the ISMW Act 1979 extends to the establishment or working place where five or more inter-state migrants are engaged, registrations of the employer and the migrants as well as license of the employer are made mandatory. By the registration of the establishments, deploying the migrant labours creates a system of accountability and acts as the first layer of formalizing the utilization of their labour. It also helps the government to keep a track about the number of workers employed by the establishments and provide a legal basis for improving the conditions of the migrant workers. This act ensure the proper wage, safe journey of the migrants from source to destination, it instructs the employer to ensure the decent living of the migrants at the work place. And it also protects the migrants from the exploitation by their employer at their work place.

“In Odisha there is absolutely no tracking systems for the migrants, there is hardly any registration takes place. Had it been done, the state Govt would have the details of exact number of migrants which they don’t have,” lamented, Dilip Das, head of Antyodaya, a philanthropic organisation working in Kalahandi.

Lesson Learnt

“The Govt of Odisha has done good work for managing migrants during the 1st wave. Very valuable database and skill mapping were done and employment under MGNREGA was provided. However, by September, the migrants begun their re-migration again. This time, the state has failed to keep any database, register or monitor thousands of workers who moved back to other states or within the states for work. It seems we did not learn anything,” Daniel remarks.
“However we have still time that Government should act promptly and start keeping the database of Odia migrants as early as possible the way it did last year during the onset of Pandemic. Government should ask incoming migrant workers to register their details over helpline or online portal, Coordinate with destination states and arrange vaccination of all migrant workers, bear the cost of vaccination, screen all incoming migrants for Covid and segregate for quarantine and medical help, provide free legal support to the migrant workers if they have any employment dispute, special attention and care for women and children migrants. This apart, the government should also ensure food, nutritional, health and employment for all migrant workers and most important set up a separate Commission for Migrant Workers in Odisha, a policy which is the need of the hour,” Daniel suggested.

When migrants walk hundreds of kilometers in distress to reach home, die on the road in despair and do not get the minimum dignity after death, the scenario questions the imbalance of power between capital and labour as well as the limitations in the State welfare measures.

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