Health and goods insurance, soft loans, food grains and financial aid – nothing; no relief has been forthcoming from the state government’s side as far as the migrant labour and other workers are concerned. This is despite the fact that a Rs. 3500 crore package had been announced by the Central government for those including migrant labour and the state government has a share in this amount which was to have been spent on this category of citizens. Also, the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Yojana was a programme announced for alleviation of hardships for the poor during the Covid-19 lockdown but funds set aside have not been utilised for the beneficiaries. Those under this category in the state include migrant workers, barbers under the Manipur Barbers’ Association, the men for loading and unloading under the All Manipur Motia Workers’ Union, construction site workers under the unorganised sector, and those who do any job that they might get. The Yojana has deprived the poor instead of empowering them, says L Sotinkumar, the general secretary of the AITUC and a senior official of the Communist Party of India (CPI) Manipur wing.
This being well meaning critique on how the contemporary poor in Manipur are faring during the pandemic, coming from a well-known partner of the toiling masses in the state as well as the country, the All India Trade Union Congress, it deserves attention and rethinking. According to Sotinkumar, at the initial stages of the lockdown the state government had promised aid would be available at the Kendras, especially for the migrant labourers in Thangmeiband, Sagolband and Keisamthong through the MLAs, but distribution was not done as desired by the residents. More than the state government the various NGOs and social organisations had come up with food grain aid for the people. Government aid has not been sufficient nor consistent, the AITUC official says.
Due to the paucity of essential survival amenities, as soon as the first chance came to return to their home states, 150 barbers belonging to the Manipur Barbers’ Association left for their states along with 200 motia labourers. The fate of the rest of the 450 barbers and the remaining motias also is undecided at the moment and a further lack of response from the state government might trigger off a large exodus of these migrant labourers who play an important part in keeping the businesses running in the state, especially in the capital Imphal. The condition of the migrants was miserable even till the time of their departure with the government failing to provide them transport for the journey and also other facilities even on humanitarian grounds, says the general secretary.
According to Sotinkumar, the state government had announced 5 kg rice and 1 kg dal for each migrant to be given till November this year, and Rs. 1000 was to be given as aid on migrants producing their Aadhaar cards. But the whole effort was botched and nothing came of it. Construction workers were also to get aid from the cess income considering their hardships, but the Deputy Labour Commissioner, in a conversation on July 15, has said that they wouldn’t be going ahead with the plan as it is already decided that the workers are not eligible to be given anything. On being reminded that the migrants are eligible to receive aid from the Garib Kalyan Yojana, the answer from the authorities was that money has not come from the PM’s fund.
Most of the migrants and workers are now on the brink with the most affected being sections like the barbers who are not permitted to open their saloons, although efforts were on just before the fresh lockdown was announced, to induce the chief secretary to permit the reopening. Also others like street vendors, hawkers, and also sellers at the Khwairamband Ima Keithel have not got any help from the government till now. Sotinkumar says the labour class is in great hardship and the AITUC is thinking hard how to get them employed immediately and if it would be possible to give them opportunity to self-induced work then they would not be at the mercy of the uncertainty the state government has created. “We can do without the government’s help,” he says. Plans were afoot before the present lockdown to get the Ima Keithel reopened on shift basis etc. so that the risk factor could be curtailed along with social distancing. The Keithel women have already held protests and some have been detained also by the authorities, says the official. Also, though the government has said it is considering insurance for them there is still no headway. The government would do well to offer some sort of loans, he says at the same time ruing the fact that as of now they are left to fend for themselves.
Sotinkumar says there’s a Rs. 3500 crore package announced for the migrants and small businesses for two months and the state also has its share in it, but no help has come, suspecting that funds could obviously have been used in the political crisis that the state government is facing. “A lion’s share is lost. It’s a big issue,” he says, continuing that the ministers do not consult anyone and the chief minister does whatever he likes. There is also no government control over prices and wholesalers are having a free hand in increasing prices; and those in the government and business are trying to earn money from the pandemic, he says. The Left organisations with the CPI have already held five protests and are demanding display of price lists, at the same time fighting price rise.
For instance, fertilizers distribution is mostly mismanaged, Sotinkumar says. The MLAs have a 25 per cent quota which means that if there’s 10 loads, only one or two loads will be subsidised, but the rest will be sold in the black market. Also fertilizers are being sold in the market as all the farmers do not have the requisite patta (land papers) to avail them. The farmers are required to approach the district agriculture officer with patta to buy a quantity. Private parties are taking advantage, he says adding a strong campaign involving the masses is required now as they are tired of repeating the same demands again and again. The system of buying voters cannot continue and the incumbent government will find it difficult to win again in the coming years. Public opinion is suppressed and it’s like an undeclared emergency, says Sotinkumar while arguing that the BJP holds functions like receptions with over 500 people while parties like the CPI are not permitted to gather for bringing up issues of importance. People have fear in rallying behind public causes; the government is undemocratic, dictatorial and become authoritarian, he says adding that this is so even among themselves with the BJP party being divided.
Small businesses and markets certainly are mismanaged as the AITUC official says. Unemployment is high due to this and there’s debt with less cash in the market. Though it’s not sure how many small vyapars (businesses) have shut and employees laid off by the lockdown, one thing is sure that a large part of the Manipur market depends on small business and if this is not revived soon survival would become very difficult. Same is in the districts where many disconnected new markets have come up lately. The AITUC has been telling wholesalers, owners and businesses to increase the wages of migrant workers by 30 to 40 percent every three years. Same for the drivers also. It is also asking for loans and working capital for the small businesses, he says adding that the government should not shy away from giving under the circumstances. He also clarifies that while the government is working in the interest of the Mapus (owners) by saying workers should work 12 hours a day, the AITUC is demanding 8 hours work. And that, he says, is the difference – the government’s monopolistic and works in the interest of the owners, while the AITUC are right opposite in working for the interest of the labourers.