The global COVID-19 pandemic claims to spare no race, religion, or social class. Yet over and over we see marginalized and vulnerable communities struggling to get the care and shelter they need during this crisis. India, like numerous other countries, enforced a lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, but, sadly, India’s migrant population was once again forgotten. Migrants who had traveled hundreds of miles for work in urban cities found themselves unemployed and stranded on streets and platforms, and desperate to find a way home.
Prior to this crisis, many of the 200 million migrant workers in India relied on religious institutions to provide meals, and on their job sites to give them shelter, while they worked tirelessly to make scraps of money. Yet, as they did the dirty work, they always expected to be able to return home with earnings to give their families a better life. During the COVID-19 crisis the situation has worsened dramatically. The New York Times article “India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Leaves Vast Numbers Stranded and Hungry,” by Maria Abi-Habib and Sameer Yasir, details the struggles millions face in India, and the government’s inadequate response to their situation. In New Delhi, India’s capital, migrants are more afraid of starvation than the coronavirus, because no provisions have been made for even their basic needs. [Editors’ note: some food aid has recently been allocated.] Moreover, there are stories of torture, such as when migrants were sprayed with disinfectants upon trying to return to their rural towns, as reported by the BBC.
The inhumane COVID-19 actions have brought new attention to the plight of migrants in India, but migrants have suffered for many years. They are socially marginalized, and regulations and laws limit their opportunities. The following quote illustrates the pre-COVID living conditions of a typical migrant laborer’s child:
“I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning to help cook food for my family. Often, I stay back after school for extracurriculars or tuitions, but after I come home, I have to help my parents lay bricks. On an average day I lay around five hundred bricks. Then I help my mother make dinner, complete my homework, do the dishes, and, sometimes, I get to read a book or play with my brother. Most nights I go to bed around 11:00 p.m.”
– Taniya, a daughter of migrant brick kiln laborers working on the outskirts of Kanpur
Kanpur, an industrial town of 2.9 million people and the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, provides a glimpse into the often forgotten story of the migrant laborers working in brick kilns. Many workers hail from the villages of Bihar and Chhattisgarh, the other two states in India which contribute heavily to the migrant worker population. In the villages there are no jobs and agriculture no longer provides a living, thus each year tens of thousands of families migrate over 700 kilometers (430 miles) to rural Kanpur for eight to nine months of paid work. This season of opportunity begins around September, and ends right before the summer monsoons. Often during this time families live in small brick houses only four feet tall. In the event of strong winds or rainfall, these houses fall short of their sole purpose: a place to sleep at night. The state of sanitation is dismal; the workers do not have any access to washroom facilities, and, in their desperation, allow their children to participate in child labor.
While the state has passed laws to protect the rights of migrant laborers by legally entitling them to certain social security measures, in reality these rights are being violated every day. The Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979 promised families in the brick kilns the rights to healthy living conditions, health benefits, and other humane essentials. Yet, these protective measures are far from a reality for most.
Similarly, although the child labor laws are many, numerous loopholes exist. Child labor, for example, becomes acceptable in “exceptional” circumstances. Such situations lead children to work after school hours and during vacations, leading to poor attendance for these students and higher drop-out rates in lower-class communities. The Right to Education Act (2009), which grants the right to free and compulsory education for children between six and fourteen years, falls flat when government schools refuse to admit children in the middle of the academic year. Thus many migrant children cannot continue their education as their families have had to move during the school term.
To address this situation, education initiatives from various non-profits are growing around India. Apna Skool, for example, has set up twenty educational centers for migrant communities, fifteen at brick kilns and five at construction sites. However, just building schools is insufficient. Problems of infrastructure and resources are persistent, and the children are unable to take full advantage of schooling. Many children still have to help their families in the brick kiln due to extreme poverty. And eventually, many leave school to work in the kilns full time. In the rare cases that migrant children continue in school, they are discriminated against and socially excluded because of their castes and backgrounds. Without greater support for families it will be hard for children to take advantage of educational opportunities.
Moreover, it will be difficult for the families to better their situations without government or other support. Because most of the migrant workers are illiterate, there are very few suitable jobs for their limited skill sets. Their lack of education also makes them less aware of other opportunities that exist that could provide an increase in their wages or room for growth, keeping migrant families in poverty. With the lack of resources for these families, it is incumbent on the local officials and government to help the workers learn about better opportunities and connect them with the correct measures.
The COVID-19 crisis brought the plight of India’s migrant workers to world attention when they were stranded, without resources or government aid, far from their homes during the crisis and lockdown, but the plight of migrant workers in India predates the COVID crisis. For these workers the crisis is not just the virus, but their overall social and economic marginalization in India.
We want to acknowledge the contributions of Ishika Seal, Anindya Pandey, and Shivangi Singh from Ashoka University to the understanding of migrant laborers through their participation in an outreach project supervised by Ananya in 2016-17.
To support Apna Skool, please visit https://sites.google.com/site/apnaskools/support-our-work.
Ananya Tiwari (left) is the cofounder of SwaTaleem Foundation (https://swataleem.org) and a doctoral student in Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Anica Bhargava (right) completed her BS in Computer Science + Anthropology in the class of 2020. She will be joining industry in August and hopes to continue working in the not-for-profit space.