Authorities in the relatively prosperous southern state of Karnataka halted trains taking stranded migrant labourers home so that work on construction sites could resume as soon as the lockdown ends.
At least 10 trains for migrant workers were cancelled on Wednesday as the chief minister appealed for them to stay, saying construction projects halted due to a coronavirus lockdown, would resume soon.
Labour unions and rights groups condemned the government’s order as they equate the move as amounting to forced labour.
The head of the Karnataka State Construction Workers’ central union criticised the government, saying labourers had been given no assurances about their safety and their pay had been delayed.
“The circumstances are such that people want to be with their families at home, and by stopping trains, government is forcing them to stay and work,” said N P Samy by phone.
“Workers are right to be worried because there is no guideline for workplace safety or assurance of accommodation that will ensure social distancing is possible.”
Antony Raju, a consultant for the charity Cividep which is providing aid to migrant workers in Bengaluru, said the decision was “totally unacceptable”.
“Most workers want to go back because the last 40 days have been traumatic for them,” he said.
“Besides being scared of contracting the disease and struggling to access aid, they feel stripped of their dignity each time they have to queue up for food.”
Many of India’s estimated 100 million migrant workers were left stranded with no food, shelter or income when the government imposed the world’s biggest lockdown to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country of 1.3 billion.
Some walked long distances home after the lockdown was imposed in late March, but others were hoping to get back to their villages on special buses and trains put on by authorities from last week.
Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy tweeted that the state government decision had “elements of compulsion” and was prohibited by the constitution.
In an open letter to the Karnataka government, labour rights campaigners, charities and citizens questioned the decision, which they said was “taken solely to appease the lobby of builders and contractors”.
“Neither migrant workers nor trade unions representing them were consulted,” said the letter.
N Manjunatha Prasad, the state official handling migrant issues, declined to comment. Federal labour ministry officials did not respond to email and telephone calls.
India’s lockdown, now extended until May 17, has taken a toll on the migrant workers who fuel large parts of the economy, from manufacturing to construction. It has triggered an exodus from cities and sparked protests by workers wanting to go home.
Many states have been worried about the “reverse migration” of workers, with builders and manufacturers raising concerns about labour shortage as India eases lockdown restrictions and allows industries to function. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)