While addressing a gathering of party workers on Thursday, 18 February, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Gujarat president CR Paatil stated that “not a single labourer migrated from Gujarat,” during the coronavirus lockdown.
However, his statement falls short on facts, as reports and studies state that migrant workers in Gujarat had been compelled to leave for their native places due to lack of work, wages and a guarantee of food in the state.
In fact, the Gujarat High Court had noted on 11 May, that migrant labourers were living in the “most inhumane and horrendous conditions,” as several were seen on the highways.
When the coronavirus gripped the nation, India announced one of the harshest countrywide lockdowns starting from 25 March 2020, leaving thousands of migrant workers stranded, as their places of employment shut down.
Here’s how Paatil’s statement fails to take into account the plight of lakhs of workers who were employed in the factories and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that dot the state of Gujarat.
What Did Paatil Say?
The BJP state president spoke to the party workers of 144 wards of six municipal corporations, which are set to go to polls this month, through live-streaming in Surat.
Around ten minutes into his address, he stated that even after the imposition of the lockdown, not a single labourer had migrated from Gujarat, since they had confidence that they will get both food and shelter in the state.
"“In the entire country, whether it is Delhi, Mumbai or some other cities, people started migrating to their native (place) from the evening of the day lockdown was imposed. But, not a single labourer migrated from Gujarat.”" - CR Paatil, BJP Gujarat President
He added that BJP workers had provided food and shelter for the labourers, and “it was because of this that migration did not begin even after first and second lockdown.”
15 Lakh Workers Left Gujarat: Study
As pointed out earlier, this claim is not in sync with the ground reality.
A study by the Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute, an autonomous society established by the Government of Gujarat, found that as many as 14.97 lakh migrant workers had returned to their home states from Gujarat during the lockdown.
Surat, which accounts for 51 percent of the total migrant workers in the state, saw the largest exodus of seven lakh workers, followed by Ahmedabad, as reported by The Times of India.
The study further states that Gujarat sent the maximum number of Shramik Special trains in the country, after the second lockdown ended. The state government had also, reportedly, set up 231 shelter homes where 8,000 workers had stayed for 40 days.
In fact, Paatil’s claim runs contrary to what Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani had stated on 5 May 2020 in an interview with Hindustan Times.
When asked about the “fears of the migrant workers,” Rupani said that the state had made arrangements for food and shelter, however, thousands of workers still wanted to go back to their homes and families. State transport buses and the Indian Railways’ Shramik trains had been employed for this.
Speaking to The Quint, Professor Kiran Desai, Director of Centre for Social Studies, also rubbished the claims that no migrants had left the state.
Desai explained that Surat is a major hub for migrant labourers. Industrial and other activities of the unorganised sector, especially construction, is mostly carried out by migrants.
“While tribal migrants from neighbouring districts had started walking out of the state, when the lockdown was imposed, those from far-off states like Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, left as soon as they got some means of transportation,” he stated.
‘Stranded Workers Feared Starvation, Death’
The Gujarat High Court had also taken suo motu cognisance of several news reports on the plight of the stranded workers, stating that “they are not afraid of COVID-19, but they are afraid that they would die due to starvation,” in an oral order.
In went on to state that “it becomes the paramount duty of the state government to assure and repose confidence in the downtrodden.”
Speaking to The Quint, human-rights activist and a trustee of the NGO, ANHAD, Dev Desai, stated that he had documented the plight of over 400 workers – migrants from Bengal and Bihar – at the state-run Kotarpur Water Treatment Plant near Ahmedabad.
“They were not getting food or any other facilities. For safety measures, they were not allowed inside the plant and were starving. I, along with members of other civil society groups, reached the place in April to provide them with food. Many of them left Gujarat on foot,” Desai said.
Contrary to Paatil’s claims, the workers were not confident of their survival in the state once their workplaces shut down.
Like Professor Kiran, Desai also explains that migrant labourers were predominantly settled in south Gujarat and cities like Surat which have several factories. When the pandemic hit, NGOs and civil society groups had helped provide food for them.
Several labourers feared death because they lost their jobs in the lockdown, “and instead of dying here, they preferred to travel back on foot, especially from Surat and Ankleshwar.”
“BJP can say anything to garner votes. But the reality is very different,” Desai added.
Workers Protested to ‘Go Home’
Reports from Gujarat also highlight how several migrant workers had expressed their willingness to leave. In April, The Quint had covered the protests by migrant workers in Surat, who longed to go home.
They had anxiety about their next meal and a “sense of betrayal” by the government, which had promised to provide Rs 1,000 – a sum several migrants claimed to have never received.
A migrant told The Quint’s reporter, “It’s okay even if we die in our villages but here we don’t have even one rupee in our pockets.”
News agency PTI had also reported in May that hundreds of migrant workers had clashed with the police in Surat, wanting to return to their homes.
The workers had bought tickets for buses back home, after selling off their valuables, but were stopped by the administration due to lack of “valid permission.”
While the government had allowed the migrant workers to leave if they could arrange their own vehicles, in early May, the workers demanded that buses or trains be set-up for them.
“Our company gave the salary initially but is not paying us any more. We have nothing to eat, we want the government to arrange for a train back to our native place from Rajkot,” a worker told PTI.
Professor Kiran Desai also recounted the hardships faced by the migrants.
"“They were not given wages, without any income how can they survive in a costly city like Surat? They couldn’t afford rent either. Some NGOs were providing food, but how long can they sustain on that?”" - Professor Kiran Desai
In fact, in May, PTI had also reported that Gujarat had carried out the “largest movement of workers from any state” in a week during the lockdown, by running 65 Shramik Special trains which carried more than 70,000 migrants stranded in Gujarat to their homes.
While not all the labourers had left, and some had been provided food and shelter according to the state government’s submission in the high court, Paatil’s statement is misleading in light of the surmounting reports on the exodus of the workers stranded in Gujarat.
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