A mother giving birth to a child right in the midst of the road with other women covering the space with sarees stretched around her is no more limited to the Bollywood movies; they are real stories of the modern India. The other day a migrant woman gave birth to a child on the roadside while walking from Maharashtra province to her home in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh province. The lady and her family walked 150 kilometres after the delivery of the baby. Did it shake our conscience? Not really. After the nationwide lockdown was announced, many such incidences have happened with the interstate migrant workers and the central and state governments have shown their thick skins to it. Just a day before the above incidence a train rammed over and killed 16 migrant workers in Aurangabad of Maharashtra province when they were exhausted and resting on the railway track (They may have thought that no trains would come as it’s a lockdown) while walking back to their homes. And wait, much more such incidences are going to happen as many migrants are still on the road, walking, cycling, and going by an auto rickshaw or by a truck.
Why are they walking?
After the first lockdown imposed on March 25, there was huge exodus of the interstate migrant workers from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune etc to their homes, who started walking as all transport services were shut down. Somehow, the situation was managed with the state governments taking them to temporary shelters from the roads. With the anticipation that they would be allowed to go home after the 21 days of lockdown, the migrant workers cooperated. The lockdown, however, never ended and the prospect of them returning home got indefinitely delayed. Many of them have lost their jobs by now and are hardly left with any money. The livelihood of 40 million migrant workers in India have been affected by the lockdown, said World Bank in April.
Despite widespread demands from economists and opposition parties for immediate cash transfer to the tune of $70 -$100 to the poor people, especially the migrant workers accounts, the government continued to be obstinate. The two financial packages announced till now, 1.7 trillion rupees or $22.6 billion on March 27 and another of 20 trillion rupees of $265 billion, hardly gave sufficient cash in hand for the migrants that would have encouraged them to stay in the cities till they are taken back homes through government arrangements.
Despite governments’ claim that food and ration were delivered to them in the cities of their work, the fact remains that many went hungry. The house owners continued to demand room rents from them. One can well witness several such cases beamed daily on Television channels. Limited train service have started during the third lockdown from May 4. But with no income, no food and no future, the migrant workers would hardly wait to die in the place, which was never theirs! Many migrant workers started walking back to their homes travelling a distance that is sometimes more than 1000 kilometres. Many were exhausted and died en route. Many faced with accidents and the number went on counting each day as the country brazenly witnessed them suffering! As I am writing this article, many are still on the roads walking empty stomach day and night, with the children on their shoulders and luggage on heads.
Who are these migrant workers?
Interstate migration has taken place long ago in India. But after the liberalisation of economy in early 1990s, the cities grew at a faster rate with construction work and service sector witnessing rapid growth. It required cheap casual labour to do unskilled manual labour or semi-skilled jobs in the informal sector in the cities. And simultaneously there has been consistent negligence of the agriculture in the country and decimation of the rural economy. On-going profession became economically unviable. People from villages started migrating to cities in large numbers individually or through labour contractors, to do odd jobs for a meagre income. People also migrated with families. Bigger cities attracted more such working class people. This push factor was created as part of the design under the neo-liberal economy adopted under what is known as Mamohanomics. And subsequent governments continued with the same economic model. And no wonder, due to the negligence of agriculture and rural economy, more than three hundred thousand farmers have committed suicide in last three decades or so.
They lived in slums in cities or in small rented houses. The slums went on expanding in the cities. These are uneducated people or having some levels of school education with low-level skills that are engaged as labourers in construction sites, textile meals, factories, as security guards, tailors, sales persons etc. People having some education level at college level or having some skill worked as supervisors, typists, receptionists etc. These people make the cities; therefore they are called city-makers. As there was nothing left in the villages, people also went to cities to open their small own ventures like vegetable selling, roadside eateries so on.
The other day, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman puts the figure of migrant workers at 80 million while announcing the “One nation, one ration card” as part of the newly announced financial package. Umi Daniel, social activist working on the issue of migration however suggests based on studies, “Of about 400 million informal workers, 100 million are seasonal labourers” It may be pointed out that there is no proper mechanism to calculate the interstate migrant workers. The figure above also does not differentiate among the interstate and intra-state migrant workers.
Exploitation by design?
These people working as casual labourers and in informal sectors do not make great earnings. This is different from the high skilled workforces who work in big companies with handsome salaries, which is not being discussed here. These migrants live a minimalist life in cities in cramped condition limiting their expenses so that they can send the savings to their families in villages. Under the labour contractor system, an interstate movement of casual labour is promoted by design to work in construction sector, brick kilns etc so that the labourers cannot form unions and they have to work at the mercy of the employers.
The labour laws in the country hardly protect the interest of the workers. As Prata Bhanu Mehta, columnist puts it in his article in Indian Express, “Indian labour laws are irrelevant for 90 per cent of the labour force”. The minimum wages, norms of working condition, and their human rights are violated with impunity. These people are exploited to the fullest.
Uprooted from the villages and not owned by cities of their work, these migrants are left as no land’s men and women!
Reverse remittance during the lockdown
How these people have been living last two months in cities during the lockdown with no jobs in hands? One migrant worker from the Odisha province, Pabitra Muduli, who migrated to Gurgaon of Haryana province to work as tailor before ten years, has now taken more than $250 from his family back in home to feed himself and give the room rent – a case of reverse remittance! The family has taken a loan from a self-help group to send him the money. His company is closed now, he has exhausted his savings and wants to come back home. The government has started Shramik special trains to bring the migrants workers back to their homes. The irony is that these people who are starving during the lockdown have to pay for train tickets! The state and central government passed the buck on who should cover the ticket cost. It was never resolved and the migrants are forced to bear the same. Several instances of reverse remittance are reported now.
The government and all other institutions like the courts and the human rights commissions have miserably failed in dealing with the migrants’ crisis. The central government’s $265 billion package aims to make the economy self-reliant. It provides, among others, strengthening the agriculture and small-scale industries, and reviving the rural economy. It will take some time to analyse the possible impact of the package. But for the migrant workers, the unending journey back to homes continues amidst the risk of losing the life anytime!