By Venkatesh Nayak*
The lockdown imposed by governments since 25 March, 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19 epidemic across India, now in its 3rd phase, has hit migrant workers, among others, the hardest. Not a day goes by without stories of their travails being highlighted in the print, electronic, digital and social media. What is the magnitude of migrant workers under distress due to the lockdown? Is it four million, or forty million or much more? The Office of the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC) under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment claims, it does not have State-wise and district-wise data despite the CLC directing the Regional Heads based in 20 centres across the country to enumerate every migrant worker stranded due to the lockdown within three days during the second week of April, 2020.
The Problem Leading to the RTI Intervention
Hundreds of thousands of men, women and their children who had migrated out of their home States to other cities, towns and villages in search of gainful employment, suddenly found themselves jobless and penniless as the economy came to a grinding halt due to the lockdown. With inter-State borders sealed during the first two phases of the lockdown, they had few options for keeping body and soul together and the Corona virus at bay. They were forced into government-run relief camps or shelters or compelled to remain at the worksites of their employers or simply bundled up in clusters near highways and other open spaces. Reports of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers protesting their forcible incarceration and demanding they be allowed to return to their hometowns have come from Kerala, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Surat, Mumbai and other places. Some tried to find their way back home travelling inside water and milk tankers and concrete putty mixers paying hefty sums of money to owners who sought to profit from their suffering. Even more heart breaking are stories of migrant workers, walking alone or in groups, hundreds to thousands of kilometers under the blazing sun to get back to their families and some perishing within reach of their homes. Meanwhile many of us saluted other frontline workers combatting the virus with sound and light shows, flypasts and fireworks on the seas.
Amidst this humanitarian crisis of gargantuan proportions, on 08 April, 2020 the Office of the Chief Labour Commissioner issued a circular to his Regional Heads based in 20 centres across the country to collect data about every stranded migrant worker in every district and State. Templates were issued for data capture during the enumeration process. Both blue and white collared workers were to be enumerated in this manner. The Regional Heads were given 3 (three days) to collect this data and send it to the CLC.
Click here for the CLC’s circular.
After waiting in vain for almost two weeks for the official announcement of the results of the enumeration exercise, on 21st April, 2020, I submitted an RTI application with the Office of the CLC through the RTI Online Facility, seeking the following information under the RTI Act:
“Apropos the D.O. dated 08 April, 2020 issued by the Chief Labour Commissioner to all Regional Heads regarding urgent collection of data about migrant workers who are stranded and placed in various temporary shelters/relief camps arranged by:
- the State Government authorities,
- employers IN-SITU/at workplace itself, and
- where they are generally clustered in some localities:-
I am seeking access to the following information available in your office, as on date, under the RTI Act, 2005:” Click here to read more.
The CPIO’s Reply
On 5th May 2020, a day after the 3rd phase of the lockdown began, the RTI Online Facility sent me an automated email stating that my RTI application had been disposed of. When I checked the status of my RTI application on the website, instead of a proper response under his name and signature, the CPIO has entered the following reply: Click here for the CPIO’s reply.
There was no indication whether my RTI application would be transferred to any other section or public authority, or if any effort would be made to collate the information from the enumeration exercise and make it publicly available.
What is wrong with the CPIO’s reply?
Under the RTI Act the CPIO has only three options available while dealing with an RTI application:
- if the information sought is not available with one’s public authority, it must be transferred to another public authority which may have custody of such information; or
- supply the information after collecting copying charges (which would not apply in my case as I did not ask for copies, but requested proactive disclosure on the website); or
- reject the RTI application if it is covered by one or more of the exemptions provided in Sections 8, 9 or 24.
The CLC’s CPIO resorted to none of these actions. He did not even send a signed reply. Most other CPIOs upload a scanned copy of their reply on the RTI Online Facility in addition to emailing it to the RTI applicant under their name and signature. So the CLC CPIO’s cryptic one-liner reply raises serious doubts about availability of data about migrant workers despite the launching of the enumeration exercise. Click here to read more.
RTI activists suggest measures for more transparent & accountable implementation of the COVID Relief Package
Two days after the CLC issued its circular seeking enumeration of migrant workers, CHRI organsied a webinar of RTI activists and advocates of transparency to take stock of the effect of the lockdown on people in general and the vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in particular. Participants from across 12 States and UTs came identified several problems with the manner of implementation of the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana Relief Package. They also identified some practical solutions for relieving hardships people have faced due to the lockdown. These suggestions continue to have relevance for most parts of the country during Lockdown 3.0:
Click here for the detailed report of the proceedings of the webinar.
Click here for a summary of the problems and possible solutions in Hindi.
Will the Governments pay attention to these practical suggestions coming from the grassroots level, remains to be seen. Meanwhile I will keep you posted of future developments in this RTI matter.
*Programme Head, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi