It’s Systemic – Anti-labour Indian way, Corona or No-Corona

Bhaskar Majumder

Let there be no elasticity of imagination that the migrant workers being ill-treated is something new in the Corona season, 2019/2020, or in India’s recent history. Most of what are visible now had their remote past invisible or unrecorded – for photography-film-recording was not there. This is in spite of the presence of enough literature at world scale. For India, the ill-fate of the workers was concealed for the workers were apparently accommodated in the village system – some kind of Gandhian Trusteeship model. Some silver lining was there like the teachings by Swami Vivekananda who declared that all samaajbondhus like “Muchi, Mathor...’’ (Cobbler, Scavenger) are “my brothers’’. The cream-society hardly understood or accepted it. The samaajbondhus as they were also never tried to be brothers of the “pure’’ society. They survived vertically-horizontally distanced – horizontally by caste-physical indicators and vertically by dispossession. If my proposition is accepted, then Corona-sponsored social distancing is only a marginal addition to the India-specific on-going socio-economic arrangement.

Of course, the workers of early 21st century are different from their predecessors centuries back. Literate or not, some of these workers learnt to resist.  Some of the resistance seem visible these days of Corona season for the migrant workers at the destination have become adamant for Ghar Wapsi. This has no link with “Workers of the world, unite’’. Some of the migrant workers post-40+days of being destination-locked came out on public road to demand Ghar Wapsi facilitated by the state or uninterrupted “roti-roji’’ at the destination. This outburst was for fear of death unnoticed-unrecorded at the destination. The workers were eager to come back home to die in front of their family members.

For these migrant workers the destination states were mostly Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab and the city-state Delhi while the out-migration states were mostly UP, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. Political tug-of-war also started 40+ days after the minimum means to survive for the workers at the destination got exhausted – it was like Centre-State tug-of-war that involved West Bengal, like two-state tug-of-war between Delhi and Bihar, political dilemma or several U-turn at the level of Karnataka – it was about who would pay the bill for carrying the workers to their home-states. History must not be forgotten – for it shows ultimately the path to make future perfect – that one ‘Sarvagyo’ (one who knows everything) spokesperson allegedly misguided the workers or the nation about 85:15 ratio of payment of train fare to carry the migrant workers from destination-state to home-state, the ratio between the Centre and the root-state. The workers became paupers by then. Was the ‘Sarvagyo’ a paid crook? Who paid?

I do not know how many were there at the destination at a particular point of time, say, on 01st May 2020 and how many were sent back to the root-villages. This is unlike the stock conditions in other economic variables like food stock in FCI Godowns, or savings in banks on 31st December and all that. I believe the competent authority knows it and frequently informs the public through electronic media that my antenna receives that so many Shramik trains carried so many migrant workers. The data, however, varied. One report told, the Indian Railways operated 302 ‘Shramik Special' trains since May 1, 2020 and ferried home more than three lakh migrant workers locked in different corners of India. Another report in parallel told the Indian Railways operated 366 "Shramik Special" trains since May 1, 2020 and ferried home around four lakh migrant workers locked in different corners. It was reported by the competent authority that of the 287 trains that reached the home states of the migrant workers, 127 terminated in Uttar Pradesh, 87 in Bihar, 24 in Madhya Pradesh, 20 in Odisha, 16 in Jharkhand, four in Rajasthan, three in Maharashtra, two in Telangana, two in West Bengal, and one each in Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. This information from the Railway authority solved the Centre-State tug-of-war around entry of Shramik trains in the root states, including West Bengal. West Bengal cannot be a state in exception unlike what the tug-of-war between the constitutionally fixed wisdom-personified head of the state and the politically elected head of the Government revealed.  

I am not at all concerned for accurate data and the derivative calculations for the whole may not be known at this stage and hence calculating what percentage, with denominator unknown, were brought back to different states may not carry much meaning other than gaining petty political mileage for the gain-seekers. I am sure about the presence of political will of both the Centre and the states at this stage. Achieving political milestone is a different calculation altogether. When the boat sinks, all the passengers are friends – human value works.

The problem has emerged post-Corona for the innocent migrant workers have become impatient for destination-locked for 40+ days – destination thousand km. away from their home-state or village. They did not understand the assurance from the competent authority that one day their problems of food-transport would be solved. How could they, for the horizontal-vertical gap between them and the power elite is oceanic. And the good day-to-come was long-term that nobody has seen.

So, hundreds of migrant workers came out to the streets and clashed with the police in Surat of Gujarat recently to demand that they either be sent back to their home states, namely, UP, Bihar and Odisha, or allowed to resume work-for-wage at local industrial units. I omit the flaws in language here for media wisdom-deficit or class-bias in reporting – migrant workers were incapacitated to “clash’’ with the police what report I got. It was an absolute unequal relation – if it was a relation at all, for workers were strangers-migrants and police engaged were local. What the workers got in equivalence? The police resorted to lathicharge (baton charged) and fired tear gas to disperse the mob, as reported. Over a 100 workers were arrested and detained why they expressed their human rights – human rights are for human beings after all. Police reported that the situation was under control. Gujarat workers were not alone – workers in Maharashtra took multiple methods for Ghar Wapsi – it included hiring “kaali-pili’’ taxis, auto rickshaws, trucks and bi-cycles and any visible means of transport. Meanwhile bureaucratic paper works continued unabated along with webinars and high-profile meetings to find the way out – to get exit point from the lockdown or get down from the back of the tiger.      

This labour (sic) unrest was independent of the rank of the state of Gujarat in terms of number of persons affected and number of deaths so far. The deaths were more of Corona-specific but many deaths occurred for reasons like overturning of trucks carrying the workers, death on railway track, fatigue while walking on road. The National Crime Bureau Report probably will not be in a position to record who had been the murderer of these innocent workers that included women and children.  The workers became delinked from “roti-roji’’ at the destination and hence willing to come back home to die in front of the family members rather than dying unnoticed. This has got nothing to do with reverse migration for most of them would be without wage-work at the root-state also unless MNREGA type programme saves them.

Since the observations are unending, let me note from the above that the anti-labour attitude of the power elite is systemic – for the Philosophy-Sanskritization sanctioned it and supported its perpetuation. These migrant workers are engaged in manual works that is looked down upon by the power elite. If the frontier is expanded a little, the workers at the root also face a type of social distancing that is reinforced by vertical distancing when they migrate. Migration shows their movement from social distance to geographic-economic distance. Corona-sponsored social distancing has got not much to do with these workers.

Apology:   I delink myself from casting any personal aspersion and apologize if anybody feels hurt.    

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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May 13, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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