Mumbai/Chennai: A veteran of organising elections and pilgrimages in stifling dust and heat, Indian bureaucrat Pranabjyoti Nath sees a precious opportunity in the coronavirus crisis — documenting the country's legions of migrant workers to help boost their rights.
Millions of India's migrant labourers say they are in limbo, struggling to access aid to survive the six-week lockdown in the states where they work and appealing for help from officials back home.
In the southern state of Kerala, Nath has tasked a team of volunteers with finding the names and bank details of 400,000 migrant labourers living in temporary shelters to make sure they get assistance.
"They've collected the information of about 300,000 workers already," Nath, Kerala's labour commissioner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"The lockdown may be lifted, but this (data) is relevant for coming months. Policy-making is not possible without the numbers," he added.
Elsewhere across the nation of 1.3 billion people, local officials are collating migrant worker data from phone calls to welfare helplines and social media messages, as well as counting them by visiting makeshift camps where many of the workers live.
India's strict lockdown measures, such as severing transport links, have taken a toll on the nation's estimated 100 million migrant workers, triggering an exodus from cities where they worked in garment factories, building sites and brick kilns.
The government announced a $23 billion aid package to help the poor, including migrant workers, but relief has been patchy across the vast country.
Power-loom operator Arun Gouda, who is stranded in the textile hub of Surat, said he was about to run out of food.
"We couldn't get through to any helpline number and nobody came looking for us," he said from the city, where protests broke out for the third time in a month on Tuesday as migrant workers demanded to be allowed to return to their villages.
’We're in Bad Shape’
India has no central registry of migrant workers despite passing legislation 40 years ago to establish such a database, the labour ministry told parliament last month.
The law aimed to formalise employment contracts and protect migrant labourers' rights, but it was rarely enforced. Labour officials say the fact that workers are constantly on the move makes documenting them difficult.
Appeals for help by migrant workers have provided a new tool for local officials, but campaigners fear the latest counting efforts will also fall short.
"To do any sensible enumeration at this point is difficult," said Rajiv Khandelwal, co-founder of migrant rights non-profit Aajevika Bureau. "Who will count - village councils or urban municipalities?"
With migrant workers scattered across factories where they work and live, or living on the outskirts of cities or sleeping rough, counting them would be a challenge.
But he said registration of workers must be carried out after the lockdown is lifted.
Food aid volunteers have cautioned that calls to helplines are not a good indication of the total number of workers because many had run out of money to recharge their phones to make calls or download apps.
'Exploited More Than Local Workers'
Last December, an all-women garment workers' union petitioned the Madras high court to demand the registration of all migrant workers in spinning mills and garment factories, as mandated by the 40-year-old migrant workers act.
"We were seeing an increasing number of migrant workers in factories, often exploited more than local workers," said Thivyarakhini Sesuraj, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, who led the initiative.
"Now it's too late. If it had been done earlier, the humanitarian crisis could have been avoided," she added.
The Tamil Nadu case is still pending, but other initiatives launched under lockdown are making progress.
In Tirupur, one of the biggest garment hubs in southern India, the migrant worker database has swelled from a few thousand to 130,000 in the last two weeks, said district in-charge K Vijayakarthikeyan.
"We ensured factory owners gave us details and we culled information from the distress calls on our helplines," he said.
About 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from Tirupur, in northern Bihar state, the local government has launched a helpline and mobile application for workers to register in order to receive aid.
"Some have lost jobs, some want food, some want to return home," said Sanjay Singh, officer on special duty with the disaster management department of Bihar, where many of India's migrant workers come from.
Of the 18 million workers who registered on the mobile app, 13 million received 1,000 rupees ($13) in their bank accounts, Singh said.
'The System Failed'
Kalikesh Singh Deo, a politician from Odisha state in eastern India, was inundated with calls for help within hours of the lockdown announcement.
"The system failed these workers because they did not register them over the years," said Deo, a former lawmaker.
Among those who called Deo was Binod Bhoi, a garment worker in south India who was working his shift when the lockdown was announced and he was asked to head back to his room.
A friend suggested calling Deo. "We tried our luck. Calling him helped and we had local authorities at our doorstep immediately," Bhoi said by telephone from the southern town of Coimbatore.
Despite the mammoth challenge they face in trying to document the country's migrant workforce, local officials say increased awareness of the workers' plight due to the lockdown should boost efforts to register them.
"Till the Covid-19 crisis, no one really thought of the kind of problems migrants faced," said Tirumala Naik, labour commissioner in Odisha state, which has started registering migrants online.
"Now nobody can ignore them or their contribution to the economy."