Enabling migrants’ entitlements through activating the Legal Service Authorities
Picture Credits: Centre for Social Justice (CSJ)
In times of any crisis, vulnerable communities get pushed further to the margins of society. While COVID-19 has affected almost everyone, it has had a particularly adverse impact on the vulnerable. The pandemic has not only highlighted but also exacerbated existing inequalities.
Lakhs of Indian casual and migrant workers faced several challenges as the first and second waves swept through the country, including loss of income, food shortages and uncertainty about their future. Many had to also walk hundreds of kilometres to return to their homes. On September 14, 2020, Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar stated in Parliament that data gathered from state governments suggested that an estimated 10 million migrants sought to return home as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown. The news of the migrant crisis not only catalysed an intervention from the government, but also from civil society. Many organizations stepped forward to intervene and assuage the hardships of the workers. IDCL India had an opportunity to speak to one such organisation, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). Their work is of inspiration to one, and all.
CSJ is one of India’s pioneering organizations which uses the legal system to fight for the rights of marginalized people. Their vision is to create an all-inclusive, pluralist society, free of violence, injustice and discrimination. The work done by CSJ expands over various areas. It includes but is not limited to Prisoner’s rights, Dalit rights, Women rights, Adivasi Rights, Child rights and disaster response. They do exemplary work to make society more equitable and inclusive. During the lockdown, they played a significant role in activating the Legal Services Authorities to address the migrant crisis caused by the pandemic.
The Indian Prime Minister announced a national lockdown on March 23, 2020. From the very beginning of the lockdown, CSJ was in constant contact with labourers and workers. They worked with several volunteers and tracked social media to connect with workers stranded across different districts and States. Their work entailed collaborating with the District Administrations to facilitate the workers’ food, shelter, and travel entitlements. A core objective here was to activate the Legal Services Authorities to perform their disaster time functions under the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) Scheme for Legal Services to Disaster Victims (‘Disaster Scheme’). Around May 2020, when the lockdown restrictions partially started easing, many State Governments, like the Government of Chhattisgarh initiated registration processes to provide transport to labourers wanting to return home. CSJ, with the help of a group of dedicated students/interns, stepped in here to provide the Government with all the relevant data gathered about workers to activate and expedite the process. Where transport through the state channel was unsuccessful, CSJ organised travel for migrant workers through other means.
As a result of this active engagement, it came to their attention that many labourers had not gotten paid for work done prior to the lockdown due to suppressed economic activity. In continuation of CSJ’s overarching work on activating the Legal Services Authorities to provide legal services to victims of disaster, CSJ collected data on the labourers’ pending wages and sent this data to various District and State Legal Services Authorities (DLSA & SLSA) for further action. Here again, CSJ worked with law students/interns to collect this data telephonically. CSJ invoked several NALSA schemes, including the Disaster Scheme and the NALSA (Legal Services to the Workers in the Unorganized Sector) Scheme (‘Unorganised Workers Scheme’) to do so. CSJ thus requested the Legal Services Authorities to not only facilitate wages of the labourers whose details CSJ had sent, but to also identify other such labourers and set up a mechanism, such as village service camps, to facilitate pending wages, as mandated by the Disaster and Unorganised Workers Schemes.
Subsequently, CSJ wrote to NALSA in March 2021, asking them to issue directions to all SLSAs to identify such beneficiaries, facilitate pending wages and set up service camps to provide entitlements to migrant labourers affected by the lockdown.
In furtherance of CSJ’s letter to NALSA, NALSA wrote to the four SLSAs where CSJ had intervened and asked them to take appropriate action. Shortly after, out of the four SLSAs, Jharkhand SLSA wrote to three of their DLSAs (also areas of CSJ’s intervention) asking them to take action on the same. Following this, on June 28, 2021, CSJ received a letter from Chhattisgarh SLSA, stating that they had contacted 352 migrant labourers as per CSJ’s list, and asked those with pending wages to provide the authority with information about their employers so that next steps for wage facilitation can be taken. That the SLSAs have begun to respond and appreciate their role under various NALSA schemes is a significant step forward.
Even though few in number, sensitive, and responsive duty bearers made CSJ’s struggle simpler. Active collaboration and engagement in a mutually learning space is always a welcome strategy, whenever it is possible to forge one. There are multiple systemic issues that need to be addressed so that the decision to adopt this collaborative approach does not become an individual duty bearer’s choice, but part of the functioning of the Legal Services Authorities. Some of these improvements could include increasing the workforce, fixing accountability systems, increasing awareness etc.
Upon further scrutiny, the delays in responses from the Legal Services Authorities is telling of the challenges faced by developmental sector organisations. This is largely due to limited efforts aimed at fostering collaboration between organisations and government officials. Such gaps can be filled when there is a mechanism which brings together government officials, advisories, representatives of social-impact ventures and non-profits. A space like Circle of Experts, initiated by IDCL India does exactly that.
To this end, we request our readers to actively engage in making the Legal Services Authorities responsive through volunteering their time with the Legal Services Authorities or getting involved in the activities of the Legal Services Authorities.