Corona or No Corona: Are the Migrant Workers Expendable?

Bhaskar Majumder

I have come back on the frontier of the Frontier for self-decided pen-abstinence for more than two months that is a heavy suffering for me, like many others standing on the same axis of fraternity. Now I feel compelled to place before you some of what I tried to learn while working on government-sponsored research projects like MNREGA and several non-sponsored works in and around the major states in India.  I took time also to find out link, if any: Corona effect on the society, social economy, market economy and all that in India. The following are what I propose based on my conversations with less of experts and more of workers:

  1. Aam Admi was hardly bothered about Corona – they were engaged in wage-work or subsistence farming in their native villages for a season – mono-cropping.
  2. The Aam Admi migrated not for positive wage-differential to the destination but to earn ‘’roti-roji’’ to feed self and family.
  3.  The migration was temporary or seasonal – depending on the work zone it mostly varied between three months and seven months.
  4. The Aam Admi took advance wage from the thekedar (labour contractor) that had to be adjusted while the final wage payment would be made.
  5. The Aam Admi also borrowed money from the local Mahajan (money lender) that had to be repaid after he comes back to his native village.
  6. The Aam Admi had to come back to his native village for his family members were living in the village and expecting to get survival support once the Admi comes back.
  7. The survival support included mostly fulfilment of food-need at the bottommost level, plus curative health need, plus expenses on rituals.
  8. The Aam Admi was also rooted – or, attached to his native village and family, notwithstanding social/caste separations.
  9. The Aam Admi tried to find out replica of his village at the destination, but lived there as a suspect, or, as a second class citizen.
  10. The final wage adjustment, in case the Aam Admi could complete the tenure of work as orally agreed upon, concealed wage-cut, non-payment of wages, delayed wage payment and so on.
  11. The Aam Admi had no bargaining power in wage negotiation.

If the above are facts, then the abrupt imposition of ‘’stay home, stay safe’’ by declaration of lockdown post-Corona (be it 2019 or 2020) had a nefarious impact on these migrant workers. The following may reveal the impact partially:

  1. The migrant worker initially was in shock and awe – how to get the pending working hours to remain engaged to earn a little more.
  2. The tenure was truncated unilaterally – from the employer’s side.
  3. Wages accordingly was cut.
  4. ‘’Roji’’ gone – ‘’roti’’ gone.
  5. Some of the fortunate workers had make-shift shelter adjoining the work zone while some rented-in, and some used to sleep under the sky (read, road divider, flyover,...).
  6. Shelter was gone for the worker once ‘’roji’’ gone.
  7. Assembly of man prohibited, collective sleeping under the sky gone.
  8. Begging/stealing could not be a choice.

What next? The following are some of the transitional consequences:

  1. The workers came to the public highway to stand on, waiting for support from whatever they understood.
  2. The workers assembled on a railway station to be allegedly batonized and dispersed.
  3. The workers started walking on foot to reach home without understanding the distance by km. and time that would be required.
  4. Allegedly, a few died for reasons not clear – it could be fatigue, absence of water-food, or Corona.
  5. Some of these workers-walkers were sanitized on the road that violated basic human dignity.

What did the workers-walkers say while they assembled or were walking? The following:

  1. Mai Ghar Jana Chahta Hun’’ (I would like to go home).

What does the above show? The following:

  1. Even if the workers-walkers do not get ‘’roti-roji’’, they would prefer to reach home to meet his children.
  2. If death is imminent, let it be at his own home.
  3. He did not like to disappear unrecorded or die with no ritual performed.
  4. His family must be aware that he still exists.

I am not going into any political economic question here. I am not suggesting any step that could have been taken, unless provoked. My point is, Corona or no-Corona, the migrant workers have been made expendable in the country that they have been serving no less than any man of any height.

I learnt ‘’roti-roji’’ earlier – its heavyweight in workers life. Now I may add: ‘’Ghar’’.                               

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

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Apr 19, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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