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Parochialism? Himachal govt refuses to show empathy towards workers of other states

By Rajeev Khanna*
Eleven trade unions, progressive groups and civil society organizations in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh (HP) have come forward with an appeal to protect the constitutional rights of the working class. These groups have in particular drawn attention to the plight of the migrant labour which like its counterparts in other parts of the country is extremely stressed.
The organizations have pointed that the saga of heart wrenching exodus of stranded migrant workers from cities back to villages in the wake of the Covid-19 lock-down is now unfolding in Himachal's industrial belt of Baddi as well.
The Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh houses more than 2,000 industrial units and is known as the pharma hub of Asia having an annual turnover of more than Rs 60,000 crore. This zone has a major concentration of migrant workers, possibly between 1.25 lakh to 1.5 lakh people mainly from Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Orissa.
Most of these workers are subcontracted daily wage labourers who live here in shanties and extremely congested dwellings on rent. Hoping for a better future for their children and moved by the socio-economic inequities and poverty in their native villages, these people are forced to leave their homes to strive to work and earn in highly polluted environments and stressful conditions.
Since the lock-down led to the closure of factories, these workers in the absence of any sources of income ran out of the savings, if any, to buy rations and pay off their room rents.
The organizations have pointed that in the initial period, the contractors took care of some relief which soon ended and accessing the government sponsored relief has not been easy either. Their only desire and demand, for the last month and a half has been to be able to return to their homes, but it is unfortunate that, while the Himachal government has been able to bring back its native residents, the same efficiency and empathy has not been shown in ensuring the return of these workers who contribute hugely to the state's economy.
“For instance, on April 29, 2020, after the Ministry of Home Affairs ordered that movement of stranded workers be facilitated by state governments, stranded workers from the state of Uttar Pradesh have been consistently reaching out to various administrative authorities including appointed nodal officers and helpline and control room numbers in both states (HP and UP) demanding that their return back to their home be allowed and facilitated at the earliest but no support has been provided till date,” the appeal says.
It further reads, “They have also registered themselves on the portals for online registration of migrant labourers initiated by both HP and UP governments, but no further update or follow up-call was received by them as they waited expectantly. The administrative authorities have also been passing the issue from one department to another which shows the lack of clarity and guidelines within the administrative apparatus."
Private operators plying buses with state permission have been charging exuberant amounts from the already deprived workers
It adds, “While the Himachal government says that the consent from the state of UP is pending, the UP government has said that it is the responsibility of the 'host' government to at least arrange for transportation of workers up to the borders of the concerned states by bus or other means.”
The organizations issuing the appeal have further stated, “Although the news has clearly stated that Himachal government will bear the cost of travel for migrant labourers, private operators have started plying their buses with the permission of administration but have been charging exuberant amounts from the already deprived workers. This has been causing further panic and stress among these communities.”
They state, “Over the last few days, with no Government assistance forthcoming, after losing all hope and patience, workers have picked up their bags and baggage, their tiny children, the elders and the women and have started walking on foot the journey of several kilometres in a desperate attempt to return back to their homes.”
“The State apparatus has constantly been advising the migrant labourers to stay back but such an expectation from the workers is not just insensitive and irresponsible but a violation of their fundamental constitutional rights", the appeal adds.
It has been underlined that any ‘coercive or intimidating’ measure in regard to forceful retention of these workers will lead to further psychological insecurities and loss of their trust in the Himachal government.
“We also would like to put in the know of the Himachal government that the Haryana Government has provided free transport and food to many workers who walked more than 40 kms from Baddi to Panchkula, before being sent to UP border. This goes to show that if the local administration and state governments have the will then this arrangement could be easily made,” the appeal reads.
The organizations have also criticized the state cabinet for its anti worker moves. “It's to be noted that with effect from May 21, 2020 to May 20, 2020, the HP government has declared that the working hours for adult workers will be increased to 12 hours with one interval after six hours and that all factories will be exempted from the provisions of Section 51 (Weekly Hour), Section 54 (Daily Hour), Section 55 (Interval Of Rest), Section 56 (Spread Hours),” the appeal has stated while calling for withdrawal of these moves."
They have listed their demands as:
  1. Himachal government needs to coordinate with other state governments and urgently facilitate movement of migrant labourers stuck in Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh Industrial area.
  2. Public transportation by bus for the evacuation up till the state borders needs to be arranged by the state government free of cost. 
  3. Up until then a mechanism of ensuring that relief rations with regular follow-ups are provided to the families of stranded migrant workers without having to make repeated demands needs to be put in place. 
  4. The status update of these arrangements should be released in public domain through the media and regular press releases so that people have all information and clarity is established. 
  5. The government should the suppression of freedom of press through the FIRs on media persons reporting on issues of migrant workers, These charges be dropped immediately. 
  6. The suspension and dilution of labour laws along with the provision of extension of working hours for adult workers from 8 hours to 12 hours be immediately withdrawn. 
The organizations have further stated, “It is the responsibility of State and administration to ensure that the dignity, the constitutional and human rights of these migrant labourers are protected and respected." 
They insist, "This has also been reiterated by a recent order issued by High Court of Uttarakhand where giving 24 hours, the court directed the state government to submit a detailed report on the mitigating measures taken in regard to the ration relief and the issue of migrants stranded in the state stating whether these labourers wish to stay back or return, they are the responsibility of the UK state. We urge the government of Himachal to take urgent proactive measures to ensure that migrant workers who want to leave the state are provided this support immediately and their rights and interests are constitutionally preserved.”
The groups, trade unions and organizations who have issued this appeal include All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Bharat GyanVigyanSamiti, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Citizens’ Rights Forum at Kangra, Communist Party of India, Himachal Pradesh Himalayan Students Ensemble (HSE), Himdhara Environment Collective, Jagori Grameen, Mountain Women Rights Forum, People's Action for People in Need (PAPN) and People's Campaign for Socio Economic Equity.
The move has been supported by several organizations in Uttar Pradesh including Sangatin Kisan Majdoor Sangathan (SKMS), MNREGA Majdoor Union, Purvanchal Kisan Union, Humsafar, Mahila Yuva Adhikar Manch, Rihai Manch and National Alliance of People's Movements in Uttar Pradesh.
Several national level organizations have also backed the move.
---
*Senior journalist based in Solan, Himachal Pradesh

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