Swati Bhattacharjee and Abhijnan Sarkar take stock of the situation of two groups of migrant workers in Kolkata, and try to assess what could be done for them.
India entered lockdown on March 23 to minimise the spread of the Corona virus. Shortly thereafter, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, wrote a letter to eighteen chief ministers, requesting them to provide for the migrant workers from Bengal now stranded in their states.[i]The state also publicised helpline numbers and websites for migrant labour from Bengal now caught in other states. They could report any incidence of distress. The Bengal administration would get in touch with the district administration in the concerned state to sort out the problem.
This step is appreciable. Now, the question is: What is West Bengal doing for the migrant labour from other states and what should it do? According to the Census of 2011, about 2.2 lakh people from other states come to West Bengal in search of work[ii]. Moreover, many migrants come to Kolkata from the districts, mainly from South 24 Paraganas.[iii] The sudden announcement of the “Janta Curfew” on March 22, and the lockdown from March 23, did not give enough time to these workers to return home.
What services and facilities are being offered to these workers? We talked to two groups of workers from the neighbouring states. The first group work in the Burrabazar area as coolies, the second group as tailors in Metiaburz area. We try to relate their experience during the lockdown with their previous experiences, and their understanding, of the state’s facilities for them. We then look at the news reports from Kerala to understand how that state has treated its in-migrants. Kerala has received praise for handling a large number of migrant workers stranded by the lockdown with alacrity and sensitivity. We wish to argue that a state’s response to a crisis is shaped largely by the policies and delivery mechanisms that are already in place, and that the structural gaps in these make migrant labour vulnerable to disease and distress, which also puts a larger population at risk.
The Burrabazar market is the largest wholesale market not only of the city but even the country. It is located near the Howrah bridge, in Central Kolkata, and has several sub-markets, selling everything from clothes, jewellery, shoes to spices, grains and fruits. It has thousands of shops along winding narrow lanes. Customers need to be careful not to bump their heads against the loads carried by the coolies on their heads. It is one of the busiest business areas of the city, always bustling with people. Since the lockdown, it is eerily silent. Canning Street, Armenian Street, Bagri market has rows of shops with closed shutters. Yet there are many people around, lying or sitting around in the pavement. These are the migrant workers who have lived and worked here for decades.
A group of middle-aged men inform us that they are from Darbhanga, Bihar. They had come to Kolkata decades ago, some as long ago as three decades, but have always lived on the pavements. No “night shelter” has been offered to them after the Corona virus outbreak. They worked as coolies, loading and unloading items, earning between Rs 300 and Rs 600 a day. The Bengali month of Chaitra usually brought extra money, as the sale season saw a lot more business, but with the Corona virus outbreak, that was out of the question. The workers used to cook their meals together on the pavement. Now the markets are closed, and they do not have any money. Their ration cards are also with their families in Bihar, so they cannot access free food grains being given from the ration shops in Kolkata. Hence they are dependent completely upon the police, who serve them khichdi twice a day. They also get meals from the local masjids, including the Nakhoda masjid.
The Muslim coolies of Canning Street complain bitterly about the quality of food served by the police. The packets are getting smaller, they say, the khichdi is nothing more than rice made yellow with turmeric. Besides, they want roti, not rice.
The labour in Burrabazar have bank accounts and use them regularly, but they believe the one-time grant of Rs 1000 that the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, has promised to all unorganised sector workers, will not reach their accounts. The coolies do not belong to the state. (The labour department officers, however, say that the guidelines for the scheme, Prochesta, have not been issued yet, hence the question of inclusion of in-migrants was moot.) They have never received any health insurance or any other benefit. They cannot hope for help from their employers, as they are hired by different people on different days, and do not have a fixed job. Nor did they receive any support from the labour unions. They have sometimes walked in processions and attended meetings at the brigade parade ground, but complained bitterly that no leader has ever raised the issues of their wage or benefits. Not a single leader visited them after the lockdown to see how they were doing. A coolie in Canning Street says that even crows had leaders and raised a racket when attacked, but the migrant labour have none. That is why the police can serve them sub-standard food.
When they first learnt of the lockdown, some of the workers had tried to hire a car to go home, but the police had stopped them and turned them back. They are now eager to return as soon as the lockdown ends. Back in their villages, they say, getting rice, wheat or jawar will not be so difficult. They have heard about the thousands of migrant workers marching for days to get back home. They are angry – why didn’t the government in Delhi give workers enough time to get back home before announcing the lockdown? But they are annoyed with the workers also – why did they take women and small children with them to their place of work? The coolies of Burrabazar do not believe in such nonsense. They visit home twice a year and send money every week.
This is their worst ever experience in this city, they claim. They did live in a lot of fear after the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, unleashing a wave of communal violence. But at least the army would let them go to the market, so long as they raised their hands high. Nor did the trouble stretch beyond a few days. They did live in fearthen, but now the certainty of hunger stretches infinitely.
The workers of Burrabazar are not practising “social distancing”. They live as they have always lived, huddled together, finding comfort in each other’s company. Some of them are using the cheap masks the police had distributed, some are not. They use public toilets, using little soap and no sanitizer.
But why do they come to Kolkata, when daily wages are better in Mumbai and Delhi, and the social security is better in Kerala? “Aadat parh gaya Kolkatta mein,” (We are habituated to Kolkata) they say. A long stay in Kolkata has made them familiar with the city. People from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh come to Kolkata following their neighbours and relatives, not through labour agents. They have no scope of comparing the social security measures available in different places, as they cannot access such information.
Workers at Metiabruz. Image: Authors.
Located in the dock area of Kolkata, and popularly seen as a Muslim ghetto, Metiabruz is known for being a production hub in undergarments and children’s clothes. There are approximately 15000 manufacturing units around Metiabruz, 3000 units around Maheshtala and around 5 lakh workers spread across the Metiabruz, Maheshatala and nearby villages[iv]. The expert tailors are known popularly as “Ostagors.” Their manufacturing units have about eight to ten workers who stay on for several months. Those who do the “wash” work have separate units, but similar arrangements. Most of the other work is taken home, where women and children work on them.
We visit a unit where jeans clothes are dyed. We find six workers from outside the state, four from Bihar (Vaishali district), and two from the districts of West Bengal (Joynagar, South 24 Paraganas and Tarakeswar, Hooghly). The four men from Bihar carry the surname of “Ruidas” (Dalits). Two more workers are locals. They all eat the food they have cooked together; the rice, vegetables and meat are supplied by the owner of the unit. The reason is not entirely philanthropic. The owner admits that if the workers go to the police to obtain a pass to return home, they may disclose the address of their workplace. Then the owner may be in trouble as the work unit is not legal. Keeping and feeding the workers also means he has ready labour to start work as soon as the market reopens. He has already taken orders for Eid. He sits on top of huge piles of jeans, smokes and joins the talk.
The workers have 12-hour workdays and earn Rs 8000 a month. One person, who has recently been promoted to “manager” now gets Rs 15,000. They may earn extra by doing extra work when the demand is high. A young boy of about 17, who lives in Joynagar, informs us that he could have gone home before the lockdown, but was afraid that the villagers would home quarantine him for 14 days. He will go home as soon as the lockdown is lifted. The workers from Bihar are eager to return home as well, certain that production will not pick up even after the lockdown is over. The manufacturing unit next door also has three workers from the same village of Bihar, and from the same caste. They bring each other to this place to work, bound by friendship or family ties.
None of the migrant workers in Metiabruz we talk to are aware of any benefits that labour in the informal sector, or migrant labour, may receive. Nor do they hope to get any help from the state. In the entire industrial hub of Metiabruz, there are no trade unions. Neither the employers nor the employees seem to know much about labour laws or rights. All work is done on the basis of verbal contracts. Hence any awareness of a law pertaining to migrant labour can hardly be expected, nor is it to be found. Besides, both the owners and the labour know that they are teetering on the verge of penury. The workers seem reconciled to the fact that they will have to take a wage cut once the business reopens. They see it as a struggle for survival.
The “unwelcome guest”
From these two accounts, it is clear that the migrant workers in the city are mainly getting the service of cooked food from the state government. None have approached them with any news of any further entitlement.
An interview with an officer of the Labour department shows that the entitlements of migrant labour are few and uncertain. They are not eligible for the “Samajik Suraksha Yojana” (SSY) for unorganised sector workers. SSY has provisions for provident fund, compensation in case of death or disability, financial assistance for children’s studies and health treatment. The first condition of eligibility, however, is that the applicant has to be a resident of West Bengal[v].
We may contrast this with Kerala, where the Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme 2010 provides a registered migrant four benefits: accident/ medical care for up to ₹25,000; in case of death, ₹1 lakh to the family; children’s education allowance; and termination benefits of ₹25,000 after five years of work. When a worker dies, the welfare fund provides for the embalming of the body and air transportation. In other words, the state provides the same facilities to migrant labour as it does to its residents. Kerala is home to 25 lakh domestic migrants, most of whom hail from West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Jharkhand, UP and Bihar.[vi] The use of the phrase “guest workers” to describe migrant workers is itself a paradigm shift. It was first used by Kerala’s finance minister Thomas Isaac in his budget speech in 2018 when he thanked 35-lakh migrants working in the state for contributing to its economy.[vii] On the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, the office of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan started using the phrase officially. One has to note however that the phrase “guest worker” was used long back in Germany to describe immigrant labour. Indeed, the change in the nomenclature raises other issues beyond solving some. This is however not the place to discuss that in details.
Coming back to Kerala, following the lockdown, at a time when migrant workers walked back to their native states on foot, the state initiated a novel scheme to shelter those who came to the state for work and were stuck now. The state opened 4,603 relief camps that house 144,145 migrant labourers, officially called as “guest workers.” Another 35 camps opened for 1,545 homeless and destitute people. Food items, masks, soaps, sanitisers have been made available in all these camps, and in the coming days, more educational institutions will be taken over for these purposes.[viii] Kerala also runs an affordable housing program for migrant labour.
In Kolkata, following an order from the Centre to accommodate migrant labour in night shelters, there was an effort to accommodate the workers sleeping on the streets into the 27 night shelters run by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC).[ix] Some temporary shelters were also opened up. But overcrowding soon frustrated the aim of ensuring safety, since “social distancing” became impossible. According to a news report, on 9 April around 10,000 pavement dwellers were living in shelters, with one shelter alone housing more than 4,000 people. The report states that KMC officials fear that the shelters may become “hotspots” of infection.[x]
Admittedly, we do not know how safe or comfortable the migrant workers are in the camps of Kerala. But the camps are certainly more in number, and the services to be provided are also being enumerated and publicised by top leaders and bureaucrats. Kerala already has a programme for affordable housing for its migrant labour, though it remains inaccessible to most of them. In view of the Kerala experience, West Bengal may take steps to remove the lack of a cogent policy towards the migrant workers at this critical juncture. Our interviews tell of a large gap in communication between the workers and the government. Bereft of attention and help, many migrant workers eye the state government with suspicion and distrust. These negative feelings may keep the workers away from seeking out government services even when these are being offered, frustrating the purpose of the state-run schemes. Emergency services can function well only when they are built upon a structure of existing services. The COVID-19 epidemic shows, once again, that the failure to integrate our migrant workers well into our social fabric puts the entire community at risk. The “Kerala model” may be of help in this regard. It can be considered an instance of what in governmental language is called the “best practices” to be emulated.
Cover image: Migrant workers in Burrabazar. Photo by the authors.
Swati Bhattacharjee works for Anandabazar Patrika and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Abhijnan Sarkar is an activist and writer, he can be reached at email@example.com.
The article was published as part of CRG’s volume Borders of an Epidemic: CoVid 19 and Migrant Workers. The PDF can be downloaded here http://www.mcrg.ac.in/RLS_Migration_2020/COVID-19.pdf
[i] “Take Care of Migrant Labourers from Bengal, Mamata Banerjee Tells Other State Govts – The Hindu BusinessLine,” March 26, 2020, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/take-care-of-migrant-labourers-from-bengal-says-mamata/article31174129.ece.
[ii]Saibal Sen, “West Bengal 4th in Outbound Migration for Employment | Kolkata News – Times of India,” March 11, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/bengal-4th-in-outbound-migration-for-employment/articleshow/71872752.cms.
[iii] Arpita Banerjee, “Migration in Slums of Kolkata: Examining Migrants’ Labour Market Outcomes,” in Working Paper for National Institute of Urban Affairs under SHRAMIC (Strengthen and Harmonize Research and Action on Migration in Indian Context) Portal, 2016, https://www.niua.org/sites/default/files/Working_paper_FINAL_VERSION.pdf.
[iv]Chandrima Chatterjee and Waqas Ekramullah, “Report On Metiabruz Cluster Study” (Apparel Export Promotion Council, December 2016), http://aepcindia.com/system/files/publications/Study%20Report%20on%20Metiabruz%20Cluster_AEPC.pdf.
[v] “Kolkata Gazette Notification, WB-SC/247” (Government of West Bengal, Labour Department, April 3, 2017), http://nagarikmancha.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/SAMAJIK-SURAKSHA-YOJANA-2017.pdf.
[vi]KPM BASHEER, “Kerala’s Scheme for Migrants,” Hindu Business Line, January 24, 2018, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/variety/keralas-scheme-for-migrants/article6902317.ece.
[vii]Rakhi Bose, “Kerala Calling Labourers ‘Guest’ and Not ‘Migrant’ amid Coronavirus Crisis Has a Lesson for Us All,” March 27, 2020, https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/kerala-calling-labourers-guest-and-not-migrant-amid-coronavirus-crisis-has-a-lesson-for-us-all-2553179.html.
[viii]Nidheesh M.K., “Kerala Opens 4603 Relief Camps for over One Lakh Migrant ‘guest’ Workers,” March 27, 2020, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/kerala-opens-4603-relief-camps-for-over-one-lakh-migrant-guest-workers-11585330696675.html.
[ix]“Coronavirus Update: Food, Shelter in Government’s Aid Plan for Migrants amid Lockdown – India News – Hindustan Times,” March 28, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/covid-19-food-shelter-in-govt-aid-plan-for-migrants/story-QFq9CNdJaWWCA0ySgSv1DJ.html.
[x]Saikat Ray and Dwaipayan Ghosh, “Kolkata: Focus on Shelters for Homeless after Two Shifted to Covid-19 Hospitals | Kolkata News – Times of India,” April 9, 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/focus-on-shelters-for-homeless-after-two-shifted-to-covid-hosps/articleshow/75055380.cms.