The relief package announced by the government for the migrant workers was hailed as one of the largest in the world, amounting to 10% of India’s GDP. On a closer look, it mostly appeared to be a reiteration of what was already there.
A HISTORY OF STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 [“ISMW Act”] was promulgated to protect migrant workers as they are ‘generally illiterate, unorganised and have normally to work under extremely adverse conditions.’ In situations of crisis, the vulnerability of certain groups such as migrants becomes apparent. On 24th March 2020, a nation-wide lockdown was announced in the country but it wasn’t before 1st May 2020 that the Shramik Special trains were announced by the Indian Railways to help stranded migrant labourers reach their home. When the Centre admitted to not having any data related to inter-state migrant workers, the gaps in the implementation of the Act were highlighted. Migrants are often stigmatised and diseases are often perceived as “foreign”, as was the case with cholera in the 1830s and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. COVID-19 was no exception to this; a group of migrant workers sitting on a street in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, were sprayed with disinfectant to stop the spread of the virus.
First used by a Norwegian sociologist, John Galtung, in his 1969 essay, ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’, structural violence is ‘built in the structure.’ For instance, when resources are unequally distributed, such as skewed income distribution, disparities in level of education or literacy, or when health services are existent for a selected few, it is structural violence.
Violence is generally understood as the use of actual force but in cases of structural violence there is no visible subject and the traditional subject-object relation is missing. Therefore, structural violence is often normalised and is invisible. These are the longstanding structural inequalities — the way things are and always have been — even if the victim fails to notice it.
IS THE RELIEF PACKAGE AS BIG AS IT SEEMS?
The relief package announced by the government for the migrant workers was hailed as one of the largest in the world, amounting to 10% of India’s GDP. On a closer look, it mostly appeared to be a reiteration of what was already there. The five-part plan included liquidity enhancing measures announced by the RBI. Some of the schemes mentioned in it such as the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY) were already announced in the Union budget speech delivered in July 2019. Distribution of free food grains and pulses was extended to migrant labourers that are not covered under the National Food Security Act or State Scheme PDS Card. This One Nation, One Card scheme announced in March 2020 had been in the works since April 2018. Similarly, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) announced in 2015 to provide affordable households in urban areas was tweaked in 2020 to include migrant workers and enable them to avail housing near their place of employment. It is pertinent to note that under the ISMW Act, it was the duty of the contractor to provide migrant workers with housing in the destination state.
Another change to take note of is the recently passed Occupational Safety and Health Hazards Code, 2020. The Code subsumes many statutes to provide clarity by streamlining key pieces of social legislation. Most provisions of the OSH code seem to be a reiteration of what was already there. However, it is important to note that under the Code, provisions for inter-state migrant workers are applicable only on establishments in which ten or more inter-state migrant workers are employed, or were employed on any day of the preceding twelve months. The ISMW Act was applicable to establishments having five or more inter-state migrant workers. This change reduces the number of establishments that are required to follow the Code. Further, the 2020 Code has removed the provision of a ‘displacement allowance’ which was present under the 1979 Act.
The Code makes no specific provision for intra-state migrant workers. The Working Group on Migration had noted that ideally, there should be no specific law for migrant workers, inter-state or otherwise, as they should be included in the legal approach and framework applicable for regular and contractual work. The problem with this is that the issue of migration is a socio-legal issue. The NSS Report (2007) reveals that there exist different streams of migration undertaken for different reasons. Factors that distinguish a migrant worker from a regular or a contractual worker must not be ignored. This is not to say that merely providing a separate legislation is enough. The State must work keeping in mind a dual objective (i) ensuring greater accountability for duty holders, and (ii) empowering the beneficiaries to enable them to realise these rights. The Working Group had recommended that migrant workers must be made aware of the various schemes that already exist and for this it had suggested a community radio service and a migrant helpline staffed with all genders, conversant in the language comfortable for the migrant workers.
The OSH Code, at best, is a missed opportunity. Similarly, the relief package, though a welcome move, is only a short-term solution. Allowing the inter-state migrant workers to avail benefits of the PDS system, for example, appears to be beneficial but the implementation and effectiveness of the system itself is a big question. In order to ensure the availability of basic amenities for inter-state migrant workers it is pertinent to address the larger issue of structural violence. Merely pumping more aid without ensuring that the beneficiaries have access to it will not help. In socio-legal issues, laws and policies constitute a part of a broader framework, not the entire framework. The government has to strengthen the socio-economic structure to ensure effective and timely implementation of laws for the vulnerable. An effective framework takes into consideration the issues specific to its target and aims to strengthen their position not just legally but socially too.
Cover Image Credits: Suprem N.