Workers State-locked in Uttar Pradesh?
Planning post-Corona 2019/2020

Bhaskar Majumder

The misery of migrant workers post-lockdown that started on March 25, 2020 and continued unabated made the state think ahead of the civil society how best these workers seen as human resources can be utilized. The national-level plan was yet to be chalked out but Uttar Pradesh (UP) was one step ahead of others in proposing to set up a Migration Commission for the employment of such workers in the state and made it clear that any state that would need them from UP would have to seek its permission. Once it comes as an Act, as Uttar Pradesh State Migration Commission Act, the workers become more of state-resources that may raise a series of questions on many other pledges.

Take for example, the Constitution-pledged free movement of people that includes movement for economic purposes also, not only for pilgrimage or scenic beauty. The agriculture sector that engages these workers for four to six months per year, or MNREGA that engages these workers hopefully during off-agricultural season, in addition, the Inter-state Migration Act, 1979 and its relevance in the context of UP-proposed Migration Commission will come in purview. The purview, thus, has to be fixed before the Commission is formed and its proposed steps that may contradict the existing avenues and Acts.
The proposal by itself is welcome to the extent that it enlists all such workers with past records of migration inter-state. Already, the proposal pledged to include insurance, social security, re-employment assistance, unemployment allowance to be looked into by the Commission. The Commission was proposed to look into the rights of the migrant workers and to prevent exploitation while providing a credible framework to ensure economic and legal support for them. 

UP is a state that shows biggest outmigration for its demography that parallels only Bihar. It is not exactly known how many in spite of Census data that has been exposed now after the migrants in millions were seen on Ghar Wapsi mode post-Corona 2019/2020. This also imposed tremendous responsibility on the state of UP. Rather than stepping in post-facto, the Government of UP came forward to adopt pre-emptive steps to retain the workers within the geographic boundary of the state that may lead to both better Vikas and security of UP-resident workers. It was understood by the Government of UP at end-May 2020 that the migrant workers were not properly taken care of at the destination states. Hence, it was suggested to do skill mapping and registration of the potential migrant workers.

If the working population out of a total population of 250 million can be mapped by skill and registered, nothing can be more welcome. India’s anchor state cares for the migrants – what more the migrants expect from the state? Human rights, insurance, unemployment allowance guaranteed – more what? The problems, however, may lie elsewhere. The state of UP is basically agriculture-based with sharp differences in productive forces and production relations within the state; for example, the east of UP shows traditional farming while the west is advanced and the Bundelkhand region is dry. Intra-state movement, rural to rural, may not help much for while west UP has the carrying capacity, it may fail to absorb all seeking to move out from east UP and Bundelkhand to work in west UP for say six months per year. Next, UP is not industrialized so that workers seeking works specific to skill requirement in industries may not be readily at hand. Third, UP could not develop metropolitan cities like Delhi-Mumbai-Kolkata-Chennai and the follow up like Bangalore-Hyderabad-Surat-Pune. The carrying capacity of the six million-plus populated cities in UP is much less relative to the metropolitan and big cities in rest of India.

The questions are bigger than the above. UP still has a comparative advantage by labour-nature ratio that the states like Kerala or Jharkhand may not have – the first one land-deficit coastal and the second one Adivasi inhabited land-locked. In case each state forms a Migration Commission on the trajectory proposed by the government of UP, the impact may show divergence or more imbalance inter-state.

Some issues that may come up

  • Suppose, workers from Bihar-Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh-MP enter into UP to work as migrant workers. Will they be allowed?
  • Suppose, some workers as regular residents of UP like to migrate to Delhi-Mumbai. Will they be allowed?
  • Suppose, there remains a gap between skill-differentiated minimum wage rate as announced by the Government of UP and MNREGA rate of wage in which case suppose most of the workers like to be engaged in MNREGA. What happens?

Let me try to focus on each one, not in any order, for the above issues are mongrel. Based on my recent study on MNREGA for the Government of India I found no “beneficiary’’ of unemployment allowance as provided in the MNREGA Act, 2005 and the labourers had no idea of the Programme being rights-based. Once the labourers are state-bottled, they cannot come out through the neck – bottleneck – for even if the Government of UP is concerned for the rights of the migrant workers, the latter do not know that they had right to work. They live not because of Article 21 of the Constitution of India but they live for they live.

In a caste-ridden state like UP, it may be difficult to retain workers for all types of works. Long back I discovered one Upadhyay of district Balia driving Taxi in Howrah/Kolkata for, among many reasons, Upadhyay was not expected to drive taxis/auto rickshaws in home-state UP – anonymity was required in such looked down upon works. I discovered one educated Tripathi in UP left for Mumbai to do the same job only hiding his identity.   

One of my students at D.Phil. level worked on labourers standing on Labour Chaurahas in the six million-plus populated cities in UP a couple of years back – it was observed that the labourers migrated not only intra-district and inter-districts but also inter-state. I believe the state boundary is not going to be sealed to disallow workers from Rewa in Madhya Pradesh to enter into the UP work-zone.

Suppose, some workers plan to get their children educated in institutions outside UP and hence plan to migrate to Delhi. It is different from wage-differential–led migration. It is different from education-weighted migration. It is also migration of manual workers what I found in the city of Delhi – father working as a roadside vendor and mother as a cook in the domestic sector, while children admitted to schools which matter. I believe this cannot be stopped.

Now some more questions of which some are major ones. In case the state of India fails to ensure the security of all the workers, especially migrant workers, through 1979 Inter-State Migration Act or through provisions in the Constitution of India, a state like UP, whatever central it is in determining India’s politics, is inadequate to secure the living of the migrant workers. If the state of India failed post-Corona 2019/2020, the state has to succeed. The horror of Bharat Walking for a month beginning with end-April, 2020 with genocide on road and under the wheels of a goods train, and police atrocities in parallel cannot be compensated by a proposed Migration Commission by a state on the circumference – UP is not alone, she has her sister states and UTs.  

Though I took the proposal seriously, time will show if the UP State Migration Commission is set up, how soon and for whom. One end-note: Embracing somebody is welcome unless he is Dhritorashtra willing to embrace Bhima at the end of Kurukshetra War.       

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

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Jun 3, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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