By Nidhi Menon
My interest in migration studies was born at a time of crisis- my perspective on the migration landscape of India was from the lens of responding to the pandemic and gauging the biggest concerns that migrant workers had. With vaccine drives and removal of lockdowns, my visit to the Kalwa Labour Naka in Maharashtra’s Thane district on 26th August was a foray into fieldwork experience during the pandemic.
The Kalwa Naka is located at an intersection of two major highways, and upon arriving, I saw many workers gathered on the footpaths, hoping to get work opportunities. Most of the workers were in groups, as they often get contracted for work on construction sites collectively. In my conversations with some of the workers, I learned that several were migrants from Hyderabad and Karnataka and worked in the construction sector. I started speaking to the workers about the Maharashtra Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act, and many were unaware of it. Upon hearing about the Act, more and more workers gathered to learn more about the welfare schemes they were entitled to as part of the BOCW Act. They wanted to know about the process by which they could obtain the entitlements.
What was most interesting about my field visit was that I also had the chance to speak to several women migrant workers. I always wanted to understand migration stories of women to get a better sense of their lived realities. I found out that women were very much interested in knowing about the BOCW Act. Throughout these discussions, they shared their lockdown experiences as well. Many of them spoke about receiving rations and other supplies during the pandemic and shared how their children could no longer go to school.
The women also discussed working on construction sites before the pandemic, and I learned about the different jobs they did on the site. Some of the women used to carry cement, sand, bricks or clean up on-site. Others performed more skilled tasks such as masonry and carpentry. My conversations with the women workers have often broken off abruptly, as many of them rushed back to the footpaths to check if any contractors had arrived looking to hire workers. But even as one group of workers left in search of work, more arrived and were happy to share their experiences with me, especially their employment conditions.
The women shared that all the construction sites in the city had been shut down during the pandemic, and most of them had to rely on doing smaller construction jobs or other daily wage work. Since the lockdown has been lifted, the workers have begun to return to the labour Naka but finding employment has been difficult. Along with the slow recovery of the construction sector from pandemic-related delays, the Mumbai monsoons also meant less work for Naka workers.
Aside from the pandemic-related concerns, the women workers also shared their thoughts on the welfare system and their experiences with it during the pandemic. They mentioned that they had all participated in training courses and received a skill card issued by the National Skill Development Corporation of India but did not have much clarity on the purpose of this card. Some of the workers asked me if the skill card meant they were entitled to the BOCW benefits because the training courses they attended also mentioned the BOCW Welfare Board. There was a lot of confusion regarding the various welfare schemes and registrations that workers were asked to enroll in. The female workers were especially vocal about the frustration of undergoing registration processes, only to have their applications rejected or not receive benefits. They also spoke to me about their children’s education, their concerns about running their households when they couldn’t find work, nor did they have any welfare benefits. Something that stood out to me was how many of the women speaking with me were also inviting other female workers to join the conversation, share their experiences, and ask me about the BOCW Act and its benefits. Not only did the women workers want to engage in these conversations with me, but they also wanted me to hear from as many of their fellow workers.
These interactions with the women workers taught me that while it is very easy to try and pick out insights that answer my research questions, their lived experiences cannot be understood in a vacuum. For instance, the women workers told me that they did not have the BOCW card, but some of them also mentioned that their husbands were registered under the BOCW Board, and the women were listed as their husband’s beneficiaries. In this case, simply stating that women face more exclusion in accessing BOCW cards may not reflect the reality that male workers may have registered and included their entire household as beneficiaries.
After I explained the registration process under the Maharashtra BOCW Act, many Naka workers told me that they did not have documentation such as Aadhar cards or PAN cards. Since the Maharashtra BOCW registration requires workers to be domiciles of the state, many migrant workers said that their address on documentation was still that of their home villages or that they did not have bank accounts in Maharashtra. Lack of awareness about the welfare schemes combined with challenges of documentation exacerbated the problems of access to social security by migrants.
“During the lockdown, we couldn’t work, and that’s why we needed rations and other kinds of relief,” one of the women workers said to me, “Now if we can get jobs, we will work and run our family with our earnings. But without jobs and any welfare support, what can we do?”
India’s path to recovery from COVID-19 has put us in the middle of a livelihood crisis, and migrant workers face the dual challenges of unemployment and exclusion from welfare mechanisms. As I left the labour Naka, one of my biggest learnings was that in the post-COVID world, our social welfare infrastructure requires significant reform. This reform will be incomplete unless migrant workers, including women, move from being passive benefactors to active agents, with the power to access benefits and navigate the system effectively.