Mumbai: This is not the first time Sandeep Srivastava, 21, is preparing to leave his home in southwestern Uttar Pradesh for work. This time, however, his family is tense: The previous time he had migrated for a job, he had ended up in jail.

“They are reluctant to let me go. They are scared for my safety,” said Srivastava who belongs to Chauth village in Jalaun district. He was among 25 people arrested following clashes between migrant workers and the police on May 17 near Rajkot, an industrial hub in southern Gujarat.

These clashes were among the many that erupted across India’s major migrant destinations as workers--rendered jobless, homeless and hungry by the extended lockdown--struggled to reach their homes. Between May and July, Gujarat, a major migrant destination state, saw intense clashes between migrant workers and the police in its industrial hubs including Rajkot, Surat, Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar. Surat itself saw four such incidents.

Of the protesting migrant workers who were arrested in this period, upto 150 currently face police cases across Gujarat, said Anand Yagnik and Pratik Rupala, the Ahmedabad-based lawyers who secured bail for all but one of them. The charges mostly relate to the violation of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and Disaster Management Act, 2005, but in Rajkot, 55 migrant workers were charged under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code, or attempt to murder, among other things.

“One migrant worker is still in jail under the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act,” said Rupala. “The rest received bail in June and July. They spent somewhere between four and seven weeks in jail.”

After securing bail, the workers immediately went back to their native states. But now, as they set out to resurrect their lost livelihoods, they have to not only find new jobs but also deal with the anxieties of a court case. “I am a bit anxious about leaving my village,” said Srivastava. “But we do not have any farmland in the village. Our survival depends on labour work, which is erratic here. With no assurance of work where I live, what option do I have?”

When migrant workers land up in a city for a job, they usually build on the contacts they have, Srivastava pointed out. “In a new city, we have to start from scratch,” he said, explaining why he intends to return to Gujarat barely two months after receiving bail, where he faces charges.

Lockdown and its aftermath

On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a countrywide lockdown to control the spread of the novel coronavirus in India. All economic activity came to a standstill, severely impacting the informal sector. Millions of migrant workers across India were stranded in cities, hundreds of kilometres from their homes.

The next few weeks saw the desperate quest of workers to head home in adverse conditions--on two wheelers, on trucks, in auto rickshaws, and even on foot, exposing them to starvation, dehydration and road accidents.

The problem was multiplied by years of state disenfranchisement of interstate migrant workers. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, was introduced to avoid exploitation of migrant workers and ensure decent working conditions. But it is yet to be implemented in letter or spirit, denying migrant workers the assurance of the same wages as local workers and an allowance to travel home.

None of these benefits kicked in during the lockdown -- let alone a travel allowance to get home, the workers were not even paid their wages, said Srivastava. “We were left to fend for ourselves,” he said. “We spent our own money to return home.”

‘Can you blame us for wanting to go home?’

More than a month after the lockdown was first announced, on May 1, the Union government directed states to make arrangements for special shramik (labourer) trains to transport stranded migrant workers home. To get on to these trains, a worker had to register at the local police station and wait for a call.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government claimed that the railways were paying 85% of the fare for special trains while states paid the remaining 15%. But migrant workers maintained that they had to pay the entire fare for these trains.

Nearly 1.5 million workers then left for their homes by shramik trains from Gujarat, according to the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute, an institution founded by the Gujarat government.

But the workers had to struggle to get on to these trains and their distress was acute, said Rupala. “The workers cannot be blamed for running out of patience because the handling of the shramik train services was chaotic,” he said. “Authorities would call the workers, give them hope and then send them back. There was no timeline, no assurance and no structure to how the crisis was handled. Workers were desperate to see their families, and their employers had abandoned them too.”

Besides the clash in Rajkot, nearly 100 workers clashed with the police in Ahmedabad on May 18, following which 35 of them were arrested. On May 14, a similar skirmish erupted in Surat when around 50 workers took to the streets demanding to be sent back home.

In Rajkot, the police named 25 people in the first information report (FIR), and arrested about 30 more from video evidence, said Rupala. “In Surat, they arrested 56 workers,” he said. “That makes it 111 workers facing criminal charges.” With 35 workers jailed in Ahmedabad, Rupala said they knew of 146 migrant workers, mostly daily wagers, who were imprisoned.

“We mostly live hand to mouth,” said Srivastava. “With no income, we had to depend on charity for a meal. Sometimes we got food, sometimes we did not. Can you really blame us for getting restless in wanting to go home?”

The Gujarat High Court, in its bail order, agreed.

Attempt to murder charges

In Ahmedabad, charged with rioting, stone pelting and vandalism, 35 migrant workers were held in violation of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and Disaster Management Act, 2005. While approving their bail on June 23, the Gujarat High Court said they are “more victims and certainly not criminals”.

“In the lockdown, when the applicants were without any work, without any money and even without any food and under such circumstances, instead of arranging their going back home, they are sent to jail," the bail order said. "They need not be continued in custody any further. They need to be set free immediately, on furnishing their personal bond, without any further condition.”

In Surat, too, the workers were held under the Epidemic Diseases Act. They had gathered at a junction, where they chanted slogans asking to be sent home. The FIR filed by a cop noted “their gathering would have further spread the virus” and they “acted with negligence, disobeyed the law, and were arrested”.

Under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, the guilty is punishable under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code, which entails imprisonment of anywhere between one and six months.

In Rajkot, however, 55 migrant workers were charged with attempt to murder, among other things, as we said. Arguing against the bail application of migrant workers in the High Court, additional public prosecutor Pranav Trivedi alleged that a few migrant labourers had "instigated others to kill the police persons who were present at the place".

However, the Gujarat High Court granted bail to the workers on July 7 stating the injuries sustained by the police personnel were not life-threatening. Further, the court observed that the state could have managed the crisis better. The Union government’s order had called for the appointment of nodal officers to ensure smooth movement of workers from Gujarat to their home states. “The entire incident could have been averted if there would have been proper coordination between the police and the Nodal Officers appointed by the State Government,” the court said.

What next?

Srivastava worked as a cleaner in the Shapar-Veraval industrial area, 17 km from the city centre of Rajkot, for a daily wage of Rs 350. He made about Rs 8,000 every month of which he sent Rs 5,000 back home. But once the lockdown was declared, he and other workers were not paid any wages despite the Ministry of Home Affairs’ order that asked employers to pay their workers during the crisis.

The bail provided temporary relief for workers, enabling them to immediately take the train back home. There was not much work anyway, said Jalandar Prasad, whose 23-year-old nephew was one of those arrested in Rajkot. “Nobody was hiring any labour because of coronavirus,” said Prasad who himself works as a labourer in Rajkot. “So I asked my nephew to go back home and spend time with his family. Things are opening up slowly. He might return sometime next month. He is a bit scared but he would have to come back. He has to support his family.”

Even though the workers have received bail, one of the conditions in the Rajkot bail order is for workers to remain present at the time of the hearing. But migrant workers go where their work takes them, Prasad pointed out. “This year, my nephew got work in Rajkot but next year, he might be in Mumbai,” he said. “If he is not in Rajkot at the time of the hearing, he would have to spend money on traveling. Why are they pursuing the case? The workers stayed in jail for almost two months. They have suffered enough ever since the lockdown.”

On June 9, the Supreme Court had asked the states to “consider withdrawal of prosecution/complaints under Section 51 of Disaster Management Act and other related offences lodged against the migrant laborers who alleged to have violated lockdown measures”.

But the Gujarat government has not done that because the charges do not just pertain to the Disaster Management Act, said Yagnik.“The state should show magnanimity unless and until they find that there was malice and conspiracy,” he said. “These are offences that have taken place through sheer desperation because of hunger and wanting to go to their parental town for physical safety and security. And we must commend the judiciary for recognising that in their bail orders.”

Though they have lawyers defending them, the workers remain anxious. “I come from a very poor family,” said a worker who requested anonymity. “I am actually underage. I have fudged my age on my documents to be able to get a job. I have a younger brother and a sister to look after.”

Breaking down during the phone interview with IndiaSpend, the worker said he was beaten up inside the prison. “They stopped beating me when I started crying,” he said. “I look like a kid so I think the cops spared me.” These memories are hard to forget, he said. “I am scared to return to Gujarat. I fear I will be picked up again.”

(Parth is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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