(Photo by B A Raju

By R S Raveendhren
CHENNAI: Covid-19 will go down in history for bringing untold miseries to humans. The nationwide lockdown to tackle the pandemic cast a long shadow on the lives of lakhs of workers who travel to other states to earn a livelihood, in particular.
As per the 2011 census, there are 45.36 crore domestic migrants in the country. A study by the New Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing
Countries reveal there are about 65 million inter-state migrants and 33% of these are workers.
While the suddenness of the lockdown caught the state governments off guard, what compounded the problem was that authorities had no database on the number of people under their jurisdiction. The workers from other states who help build the foundation of our cities and industries were almost invisible until now.
Left without a livelihood overnight, driven by despair, workers began overcrowding at bus terminals, railway stations and inter-state borders to return to their homes. Over the past couple of weeks, the mass exodus of workers, who have received staggered relief from respective state governments, began. The ramifications were worse — these guest workers gathering in large numbers were not only at a high risk of contracting the virus but they are also prospective carriers who could spread the virus to remote pockets of the country.
In the case of Tamil Nadu, the lack of a mechanism to identify workers from other states came in the way of providing them with the required help, thereby hampering even well-intentioned relief measures. The most relevant piece of legislation on inter-state migrants is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. No state has so far implemented the law. There are zero details about any form of statistics on migrant workers in TN on any of its government websites.
The majority of the workers in Tamil Nadu are from Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar, who are engaged in textile, construction, brick kiln and other manufacturing industries. No official data is available in respect of formal and informal sectors.
The laxity in implementing the act has compelled the State to rely on incomplete data or information provided by various establishments and voluntary registration by the guest workers. The act provides for mandatory registration of every establishment or contractor engaging five or more inter-state worker. Implementation of the Act per se could have equipped the government with proper data that could have been handy to plan rescue and relief measures at this time.
The Tamil Nadu government’s swift nomination of a senior IAS officer as a nodal officer to facilitate travel of workers from other states meant that more than two lakh registered themselves with the said authority, despite a language handicap in filling a questionnaire. A little thoughtfulness in the form of multiple languages could have ensured better enrolment.
In such bleak times, Kerala has been a model with its department of non-resident Keralite’s Affairs (NORKA) redressing grievances of non-resident Keralite within the country and abroad. It functions as a seamless interface between the government and non-residents helping to safeguard their rights as well as rehabilitating them on their return. Tamil Nadu too, could have been in a similar league had it meticulously gathered adequate information about its workers from the other states.
(The writer is an advocate at Madras high court)

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