Don’t the Migrant Workers have National Identity?

Bhaskar Majumder

One of my friends on the Left in West Bengal informed me through WhatsApp technology on 25th June, 2020 that the workers who returned to their homes in West Bengal had been excluded from the opportunity of being engaged in wage-works under 'Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan' launched on 20th June, 2020 by the Government of India. My friend’s note said that the Government of West Bengal did not send the list of the returnee migrant workers post-lockdown, 2020. I drew the implication that my friend on the left targeted the CM of West Bengal. I believe most of my readers will take my note in positive spirit what follows.

I do not know the states by name which quickly submitted the list of returnee migrant workers for reasons more than one. However, I understood through the electronic media that the BIMARU states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand) plus Odisha had been included for distribution of benefits. The 'Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan' aimed at retaining the “returnee’’ migrant workers in the rural regions of these six major outmigration states that received the maximum number of migrant workers back. These are also the major states with population more than half of India and some are at the bottom by poverty indicators. I can draw the inference that these states submitted the list to the competent authority to encompass them in the security net. The authority calls these workers beneficiaries. The states included deserved to be included for these covered most of the incapacitated states in India – capacity understood by the carrying capacity to retain workers or the capacity to productively engage the workers as wage-labour intra-state on a regular basis.

While inclusion cannot be questioned, unless it is adverse inclusion, exclusion may be questionable. I shall, however, not question why returnee workers in West Bengal had been excluded. My canvas is a little bigger one. I understand that the returnee workers in West Bengal will include not only the Bengali – Hindu and Muslim – but also some non-Bengali. The returnee workers in Odisha may include some Bengali as may be elsewhere. So the question of exclusion of Bengali does not arise and hence, it was not parochially motivated.

What could the Government of India do if it did not receive the list from the Government of West Bengal? Obviously the workers in any of the states – included or excluded – submitted the list. The workers were not asked to do so other than that they had to fill-in forms at the destination states just prior to their unlocking that required mentioning the home state. These filled-in forms were with the state authority – either police and/or Railway authority. This covered one segment of the returnee migrant workers. The other segment was unnumbered migrant workers walking on roads, cycling, entered into trucks, buses, trolleys etc. to come back “Ghar’’. The state of Chhattisgarh also was excluded probably for the same reason.

But two questions came to my mind: 1. Most of the returnee workers were drawn by special Shramik trains. Hence, the Railways had the list. The Government of India could have in the twinkle of an eye drawn the list from the Railway authority. This is perfectly in keeping with the Advisory that said that the consent of the destination state for entry of special Shramik trains was not needed while they were being dispatched post-Corona, 2019/2020 to home-state. 2. The migrant workers came back home. That did not imply they came back to respective states on the circumference to assert their sub-national identity.

Let me focus on point 2 only to make my point home. For most of the migrant workers, India is the home in the sense that they reach any work zone informed and uninformed. They go alone and they go with families. They go and they are drawn. Generally it is understood that Odisha workers go to Gujarat for that is well researched by Jan Breman. That does not mean that workers from Odisha did not go to any work zone other that Gujarat. Workers from rural Bihar reach rural Punjab for agricultural workers. This does not mean that workers from Bihar did not reach Uttarakhand or Goa. Workers from West Bengal migrated to work in Kerala. That does not mean that they did not work in Uttar Pradesh. Excepting some states where Inner Line Permit is required, all the states are economically open for labour to be engaged and hence labourers to move in and move out. No Passport-Visa is required for the purpose so far.

Given the above, I fail to understand how could the returnee workers of West Bengal had been excluded from the work-safety net. I believe there must be information-deficit that I received from my friend on the left. Even if the workers who returned to West Bengal had not been included, time is there for their inclusion. After all, these workers hold the same National Flag as do their brothers in other states on the circumference.

One more point. I do not believe that the Government of India is against any worker – be he a resident of West Bengal or Bihar. There may be temporary conflicts of interest between the Centre and the Circumference – but Centre disappears if the radius is not there and a fixed radius means all states are equidistant from the Centre. Hence, even with Centre-state disputes, the workers seem safe for both the Centre and the Circumference carry them. Conversely, these workers carry both. If labour is lost, nation-building is lost.

Precisely, workers cannot be caged by affiliation to a single state on the circumference. They have national identity – they deserve that honour.

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

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Jun 29, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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