Long road home

Migrants and the troubles they have to endure are at the forefront of a programme that is expanding and evolving

F or 20-year-old Rinku Kumar, the period immediately following the Covid-19 lockdown of March 2020 is a nightmare he would like to forget. With no work available and his meagre savings running out, Mr Kumar was forced to beg for food supplies on credit from local shopkeepers.

Like many other workers who migrate to urban centres, Mr Kumar had come to Mumbai to earn money as a daily labourer so that he could repay the loans that burdened his 12-member family back home in Taalbaghauda village in Uttar Pradesh's Shravasti district. When jobs were available, he worked around 20 days a month, earning 500 a day. Mr Kumar lived in a single room with a dozen others, scrounging and saving so he could send about 6,000 home every month.

When jobs dried up post lockdown, Mr Kumar and his co-workers had no option but to leave Mumbai and return home. With minimal transportation available, large parts of the 1,200km distance had to be covered on foot in the harsh summer heat. The men spent 15 days on the road, often walking through the night until they were exhausted, living off whatever little food and drink were provided by good folks along the way.

Mr Kumar is one of an estimated 100 million migrants whose exodus to India's cities is driven by the search for economic opportunities. The work these migrants do turns the wheels of the economy but, historically, they have remained outside the social security umbrella. The pandemic yanked away the cloak of invisibility when images of thousands of people trudging home thrust the issue into the national consciousness.

This is the marginalised section of India's informal workforce that the Tata Trusts have been addressing since 2006 through their programmes under the migration theme.

Forced to drift

Typically, migrant workers leave their homes and fields in 'source' states such as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha to earn money through low-skill work. They head for 'destination' states such as Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra to slog away in brickkilns, road-construction sites and building projects.

Migrants have always had the deck stacked against them: lack of identity papers and permanence of residency, widespread exploitation, meagre working and living conditions, limited access to welfare schemes, poor health indicators, limited access to food, and no real social safety net.

promoting awareness
Promoting awareness about banking and financial rights figures on the agenda of the Trusts' migration initiative

In 2016, the Trusts launched the latest phase of the migration programme and this is designed to lend a hand to migrants in the source states of Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan. At its heart are multi-service centres known as Apna Seva Kendras (ASKs) that support migrants in a number of ways, linking them to government schemes and entitlements, providing legal assistance in wage disputes, workplace injury or death compensation, and with skill training, employment opportunities and banking services.

ASKs also work to reduce the vulnerabilities labourers face in brickkilns and the construction industry, and to ensure that they receive basic services such as housing, nutrition, water and sanitation. The need for these centres explains their proliferation: there are a total of 95 ASKs across 13 districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha and they have been enablers for more than 1.3 million people.

"When Covid struck and the lockdown disrupted jobs, our migration initiative acquired an urgent and special relevance simply because millions of returning migrant workers needed support," says Shikha Srivastava, who heads the urban habitat and migration portfolio at the Tata Trusts. "We decided to step up our ASKs to facilitate doorstep delivery and expand outreach to far-flung areas and migrants in other states."

Studies commissioned by the Trusts in mid-May 2020 in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh revealed that over 80% of migrants reported loss of jobs and wages. Relief measures for migrant workers had been announced but the ground reality was that a majority of them were unaware of the aid they were entitled to, or they could not access benefits because of improper documentation.

Tale of travails

The story of 45-year-old construction worker Shankar, who resides in Bangarwada in Rajasthan's Ajmer district with his disabled wife Kamla and four children, is an example of the awareness gap that undercuts migrants. Confined to his house since the lockdown, Mr Shankar had earned nothing for three months and Kamla's disability pension had stopped.

The family was in dire straits and with little idea that they had recourse to government aid.

There likely are millions of families like Mr Shankar's who are unable to tap official relief measures. Mission Gaurav (pride) was launched by the Trusts to ease their woes.

It was rolled out in September 2020 to support and empower migrants. It plugs into the services offered by the ASKs and extends the outreach through a system focused on last-mile delivery. This involves community members known as shramik mitras (worker friends), and it depends on technology in the form of mobile ASK centres, a migration portal and an app.

Mission Gaurav will be implemented in six states that have witnessed the highest number of returnee migrants: Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha, where the Trusts' migration initiative is already up and running, as well as Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the Trusts and their implementing partners have a strong presence.

The Trusts are working to enhance the capacity of its existing migration portal, deploy a mobile app and create a centralised call centre to reach out to more beneficiaries. Approximately 107 ASKs, 45 mobile ASKs and 1,405 shramik mitras will be engaged in a project expected to cover 48 districts in the six states.

Awareness building on government schemes and entitlements, registering migrant families in the public distribution system so they have access to government subsidised staples, improving livelihood opportunities near their homes, facilitating banking operations, and linkages to skills training for work beyond farm labour — the mission covers a gamut of issues affecting migrants.

At a different level, the Trusts are involved in policy advocacy that draws on data analysis and evidence building to offer recommendations for policymakers at the centre and in the states. The objective is to facilitate long-term enhancements for migrants in employment and living conditions.

In its scope and vision, the mission is more than a response to an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It shines a bright light on the wider goal of the Trusts' migration programme: to provide migrant workers with access to basic citizen rights that they have long been denied.