Differentiated States - Differentiated Migrant Workers:
What is New?

Bhaskar Majumder

Everything is not worth penning for humanity may be hurt unwarranted. The nation had enough of forced pain-anger, not necessarily expressed, since lockdown was declared by the competent political authority that caught not only the destination-locked migrant workers in shock and awe but more so the persons who had to helplessly see their conditions walking on road in the scorching heat of summer, 2020.

Let me be very clear at the outset that it was not a cock-fight or cat-fight between the states on the circumference or a competitive examination on the “relative competence’’ paper meant to test those states – as if it was an applied subject where each state with less carrying capacity had to prove their capacity to get back “their workers’’. Let me be very clear to start with – workers carry the nation and hence they belong to the nation called India that is Bharat. It is not that A worker is a Bihari, B worker is UPite, C worker is a Marathi, and D worker is a Bengali.

The fact hopefully remains that the workers are not linguistically differentiated in India. While they speak different languages, it does not imply that their identity is cocooned in the linguistic frame. While they have sub-national identity, they also have national identity – they are very much Indian as we the non-workers are. Their mother, BharatMata, is the same as our mother. These days, of course, because of Deshbhakts being home-locked, along with Desh non-bhakts or non-Deshbhkats, this is not heard like “BharatMata Ky Jai’’ – some voluntary slogan mongers and some forced listeners. Meanwhile hostile countries on the border disturbed the forced symbiotic relation. Or, the angle of vision got disturbed for the hostile countries on the border seemed differentiated – one Islam, one big Communist, one tiny Communist and all that that made the first question of Dronacharya to his disciples more perplexing – now it was not one eye of one bird to hit by arrow, but many and Dharmputra would have been a better choice who was in the habit of looking at everything unlike warrior Arjuna in the Great Epic Mahabharata.

Let it be like that. I wonder how a particular state in exception is targeted frequently to prove her exception or aberrations. This state in exception is West Bengal – a region with hills on the top, ocean at the bottom, a different sovereign country on the right and unparallel anchor state on the left. This is the state with a Constitutional Head always on the Twitter explaining how a tiny incapacitated state could dare to go against the capacitated Centre. Simple circle theory may prove otherwise.

Let me come back to the core point.  As reported through the electronic media, the Bombay High Court on 14th July, 2020 observed that the issue of the migrant workers was not dealt with properly in West Bengal amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government there at one point of time even refused to permit labourers from other parts of the country to return to their homes. It was not suo motu; the petition was filed by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Mumbai-based, raising concerns over the plight of migrant workers stranded in Maharashtra in the wake of the corona virus-induced lockdown. The Union (CITU) represented by a competent lawyer informed the Court that the submission by the Government that there were no stranded migrant workers who desired to go back to their native states was incorrect.

The idea that got generated and circulated through the electronic media was that the Government of West Bengal at one point did not even permit migrant labourers to return or that the situation there was not handled properly. This only reinforced the marginalization of a state on the circumference and a politico-culturally sensitive state on the border. In my understanding, the state initially was unwilling for it had the idea that the migrant workers would remain safe-on-job at the destination. The CM of the target state as I remember opined like that.

The problem was deeper than what is being observed or commented upon now post-100+ days lockdown declared abruptly by the Government of India and not by any particular state on the circumference. Many conflicts between states are in processes and consequential like water-sharing to what not. Hence, the initial absence of coordination between the states also did not happen and most of the states started looking at the competent authority at the Centre for the logistics – be it flight facilitated early or trains facilitated late.

The differential treatment of migrant workers of different destinations did not go overlooked by any concerned citizen of India. The elite migrants were allegedly facilitated early while the migrants who came back to the Heartland by Shramik Special trains were facilitated much late – that too following simultaneous intervention of the Apex Court and the Railways. The internal migrant workers had to register themselves to travel by Shramik Special trains to their home states, a process that was cumbersome, be it Maharashtra or be in Karnataka.  

It was a separate question why the internal migrant workers had to walk on foot 1,000 km. in the summer of May when the prolonged lockdown was declared on March 25, 2020. I do not doubt the benevolent intention of the Government of India but initially it did not find anybody walking on road for Ghar Wapsi, as reported to the Apex Court; the latter was ready to believe it unless some channels in Media took courage to show it de facto.

Was the response-differential because the cross-border migrant workers could not come back to India on foot or by swimming while the internal migrant workers could? The fact remained that unnumbered migrant workers started walking on foot from the states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttrakhand to come back home not to die or disappear in the destination-locked states. But question remains where did the employers/thekedars go? Why did the workers remain unpaid for 40+days at the work-zone and thrown out of their rented house? The less said about the space-quality of the rented room, the better. Should one dare to repeat the old proverb, “Beggars are not choosers’’?

Of course the Government of India was in favour of paying “wages for no work’’ at the destination that was contested by capital in the Apex Court, the latter applied its conventional wisdom in favour of capital. I failed to understand the game. But how did West Bengal get so much prominence or how did it come to limelight so much and so often? Any political agenda? There are other robust states like BUP (Bihar-UP) – they got back most of the returnee migrant workers and most of the walking Bharat post-lockdown and probably suffered the most if statements of one stalwart CM are remembered.

It is time the migrant workers are not seen as citizens of West Bengal. It is time to shower on them respect for the courage that they revealed irrespective of state support. I believe the Government of India will be at one with me on this point.   

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

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Jul 30, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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