The COVID-19 is a virus that originated from Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019. It has been recognized by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. On 30th January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in India. So far India has a total of 12,974 confirmed cases, 2,230 recovered cases and 507 deaths. 

Provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 have been invoked in India. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 empowers State Government or Union Territories to undertake special measures and to also formulate regulations for containing the outbreak. It also empowers the State Government to impose temporary regulations that are to be observed by the public or by any class of persons which are necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread of such disease. The State may also determine the manner of incurring expenses. The State Government may also impose regulations for the inspection of persons travelling and may also segregate in hospitals or temporary accommodation of any person suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease. The State Government may also impose penalties for disobeying any regulation or order made under the Act. The Act also gives legal protection to the implementing officers acting under the Act.

WHO IS A MIGRANT LABOURER?

A Migrant labourer is a person who has travelled from one State to another in search of a means of livelihood. A close definition of a Migrant labourer can be found in Section-(2)(e) of the “The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation Of Employment And Conditions Of Service) Act, 1979”  which was enacted to regulate the employment and conditions of service of Inter-State migrant labourers.

“inter-State migrant workman” means any person who is recruited by or through a contractor in one State under an agreement or other arrangement for employment in an establishment in another State, whether with or without the knowledge of the principal employer in relation to such establishment

The same can be explained with the help of an illustration which is, A is a contractor, A wants to hire 10 people for a project involving the construction of his office, B is a provider of labourers for construction, A takes the help of B for hiring 10 people, here A is the principal employer for the construction of his office, A does not need to have knowledge of the agreement of recruitment of labor for his establishment which is in another State.

These labourers migrate to another State in search of employment and to support their families financially. The migrant labourers are employed in several sectors, and also constitute a large population to the working class. Unlike the rest of the working class, these migrant labourers just manage to scrape through by surviving on their daily income, they also constitute persons below poverty line. The employer or the third person who engages the migrant labourers for the employer’s work accommodate the migrant labourers in hoards on barren land, they are provided with no resources or facilities, they are almost treated like cattle, majority of these migrant labor camps do not have make shifts toilets, which force them to defecate in the open which in turn paves way for many health risks. In most cases their health isn’t insured, they enter into a contract to do certain work for pay.

CURRENT SCENARIO IN INDIA– 

In its effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the National Disaster Management Authority vide its Order No. 1-29/2020-PP (Pt.II) dated 24th March, 2020 exercised its powers conferred under Section-6(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and decided to direct Ministries/ Departments of Government of India, State Governments and State Authorities to take measures for ensuring social distancing so as to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Guidelines were also issued under Section-10(2)(l) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 by the National Executive Committee. These measures were to be in force for a period of twenty one days i.e. 25th March 2020.  

The Annexure to Ministry of Home Affairs Order No. 40-3/2020-D dated 24th March, 2020 contained guidelines on the measures to be taken by the respective Ministries/ Departments of Government of India, State Governments and State Authorities. The guidelines issued, prohibited the majority of the citizens from attending work. The guidelines issued severally impacted the migrant labourers as they had no source of income and no freedom to move for reverse migration.

Majority of these migrant labourers started migrating back to their respective home States in fear of poverty. This grossly violated the motive of enforcing a lockdown in India as there was no social distancing. The Ministry of Home Affairs vide Order No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 29th March, 2020 was to bring in respite for the migrant labourers. The National Executive Committee directed the State/Union Territory Governments and State/Union Authorities to take necessary action and to issue necessary orders to the District Magistrate/Deputy Commissioner and Senior Superintendent of Police/Superintendent of Police/Deputy Commissioner of Police to take the following additional measures:

  1. The State/Union Territory Governments to ensure that adequate arrangement of temporary shelter and provision of food is made for the poor and needy including migrant labourers.
  2. The migrant labourers who have moved out to reach their homes were to be kept in the nearest shelter by the State/Union Territory Government quarantine facilities after proper screening for a minimum period of 14 days.
  3. All employers of any industries, shops and commercial establishments shall make payment of wages of their workers at their work places on due date and without any deduction for the period the establishment is closed during the lockdown.
  4. The landlords of migrant workers who were living in rented accommodation shall not demand payment of rent for a period of one month.
  5. Any landlord who forces a labourers and students to vacate the premises shall be liable for action under the Act.

A DARK DAY

30th March, 2020: An incident of public disinfection

In view of the lockdown and fearing poverty, the migrant labourers were trying to go back to their home State. A large number of migrant labourers had entered Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh through bus route. At one of the check points, the migrant labourers who were fully clothed, were made to squat on the road with their luggage. Officials in biohazard protection suits, hosed the migrant labourers with bleach disinfectant. Harrowing videos of the same surfaced online. The incident created a blotch on our Country. Ashok Gautam, a senior official in charge of COVID-19 operations in Uttar Pradesh stated that about 5,000 people have been “publicly sprayed”. 

FIGHT AGAINST VIRUS OR VENGEANCE ON SOCIAL STATUS?

After the incident which took place on 30th March, 2020 in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, several concerns were raised, some being-

  1. Why were the migrant labourers treated like cattle by being made to squat on the road and to be publicly sprayed with disinfectant?
  2. Whether the bleach disinfectant was safe to be sprayed directly on humans?

The incident of 30th March, 2020 was pure infringement of the Fundamental Rights and violation of the Human Rights of the migrant labourers. The fact that a person is a migrant labourer does not in any way take away the person’s Fundamental Rights. Fundamental Rights are constituted under Part-III of the Constitution of India, 1950. Article-21 of the Indian Constitution contains right to life and personal liberty which was also extended to include right to life with dignity, which was clearly violated for the migrant labourers who were subjected to the public spraying in Bareilly. Human Rights can be defined as “Human rights are based on dignity, equality and mutual respect – regardless of your nationality, your religion or your beliefs”. The spraying of bleach disinfectant on the migrant labourers on the road, took away their dignity and respect, it was also violative of the principle of equality, as the other citizens were not subjected to the same.

PLIGHT OF THE MIGRANT LABOURERS

The Ministry of Home Affairs vide Order No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 15th April, 2020 extended the lockdown up to 3rd May 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The migrant labourers are stranded all over India. It is unlikely that they will receive wages from their employer as most of the employers hire the migrant labourers through a third party. It is also to be noted that large numbers of migrant labourers have been hoarded up in shelter homes. We aren’t aware of the amenities which are being provided to them. If basic amenities such as food, water and shelter aren’t being provided, it would be gross violation of Human Rights. 

THE BRINK OF CIVIL UNREST

On 23rd March, 2020 the Union Finance & Corporate Affairs Minister Smt. Niramla Sitharaman announced Rs 1.70 Lakh Crore relief package under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for the poor to help them fight the battle against Corona Virus. The scheme will have two parts, cash transfer and food security for the poor and the migrant workers. The schemes which have been provided by the Government are only temporary. Looking ahead, if the lockdown is further extended, it could be a serious cause of concern. The Indian Economy has already been set back due to the lockdown. Several fields such as Transport, tourism, food industry, entertainment, etc. have already taken a major hit. Extended period of lockdown for the migrant labourers could cause civil unrest in the society. Though the Government has provided the poor and the migrant labourers with a scheme for cash transfer and food security, the same will have to be amended as an extension in the lockdown period is likely to occur. An enforcement mechanism must be provided which should be implemented across the country and it must be ensured that it reaches the end beneficiaries. If a man has no money and food to survive, he is likely to commit a crime for either. Civil unrest during times of a pandemic can only cause more havoc and can also cause an increase in fatality rate. 

CONCLUSION

Migrant labourers are no different from other Indian citizens. They must be treated with dignity and respect. The incident of public spraying was an infringement of their Fundamental Rights and was also a gross violation of their human rights, it has left a blotch on our Nation. The fact that the usage of the bleach disinfectant wasn’t checked before it was sprayed on the migrant labourers, shows a lapse in our system. COVID-19 is a fight against the virus and the same should not in any way be used as a vengeance on social status. It is our duty to ensure equality for all. Violation of equality, does not stand in the spirit of our Constitution. We, as citizens, must take it upon us to ensure that the rights of the migrant labourers are protected to prevent civil unrest.

About the author

Simran Kaur Bhatia is currently pursuing her BA. LLB at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad. She is an active member of the Training and Placement cell of her College. Apart from her various other publications, her article titled “Amputation or Maiming of children for the purpose of begging” was recently published in the CNLU, Child Rights Centre’s Newsletter. She is also an active member of the Spark Initiative Society – A youth society, working towards policy drafting, identifying loopholes in current policies & implementing Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, Simran is also a keen athlete and plays for her College Women’s Football Team, she has represented her college in several football tournaments.

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