Exodus of Millions of Migrant Workers: Where is the policy?

Bhaskar Majumder

I wonder had there been any policy of the Government of India prior to announcing lockdown on March 25, 2020 – or, prior to exodus of the migrant workers from the work-destinations – the kind of unkind misery that the Indian nation experienced could have been avoided. This could also have saved humanity, human lives, nowhere child and other psychological trauma. Precisely, the destination-locked migrant workers were asked to vacate not only the labour colonies or rented-in rooms at the destinations but also leave the destination-state to reach home as early as possible to comply with the home-lock mandate of the government. I heard one of the CMs on the circumference asked for steps to retain the migrant workers where they were engaged as workers – that is, retained at the destinations. Perhaps it was not feasible or that the Government of India or other destination states did not like it for who would have fed the unproductive labourers for the period of prolonged lockdown?

I have been listening to many stuff and non-sense like questions on relevance of intellectuals, media and public activists when the Legislative-Executive-Judiciary was in harmony to take care of the migrant workers in particular and people in general. It is not that only migrant workers died and were dying – state warriors like police constables were also dying and health workers might also be on the unwelcome queue. It is after all Corona-Mahakaal that can touch anybody. Under these conditions and circumstances, it is irritating to listen to non-music like some wisdom-personified judging others if the latter should make comments on the Judiciary (as different from the Judges as its carrier) or about Bureaucracy (as different from particular bureaucrats) – does this type of judgement reflect sympathy-catching martyrdom? Migrant workers were nowhere in such judgements – seen or judged from whatever angles for they were battling for life or standing between life and death.

Time is irreversible. So it happened with the destiny of the migrant workers whose death, in whatever way it is estimated, may cross the number of members in the Lok Sabha in no time. Of course, the two are non-comparable. Now that the migrant workers have been destination-unlocked, they are reaching their respective home states to be home-locked and to be the messenger of the Corona virus for their neighbours unless community spread is checked medically-socially. Some of the regions in India, including remote districts in West Bengal, reportedly started Corona Yagno (some sort of puja burning ghee on wood) of late. Then again it is a question on livelihood of the people at the bottom – this bottom is more than half of total population in India. By states, some are incapacitated to engage the returnee migrants in productive works – one way could be MNREGA – state willing. The other could be urban public works – state willing.

The states on the circumference are, however, walking in the opposite direction – promoting private investment, including foreign direct investment if it is China-linked, without any collateral that may add up to NPA and may not lead to “roti-roji’’ of the people who need money-food-shelter. Rather than banks advised to lend easy money to private channels, the states on the circumference could have been provided the opportunity to create a buffer borrowing from banks to feed people directly – first cost-free food and in parallel, engaging them in wage-work. That is yet to happen – two states stand on the misery-pedestal most at this stage, one West Bengal for double burden of Corona and Amphan, the other Bihar for massive returnee migrant workers.

Let there be no elasticity of imagination that I am biased for West Bengal and Bihar. The other states like Odisha, Jharkhand, UP are no less in crises for these are also the states with large outmigration. This also implies that these are the states in east and north-east India that had less carrying capacity relative to the manpower and natural resources. This also meant that the Shramik special trains had to carry large migrant workers from the south-west destination states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Punjab to these north-east states. The Railways provided trains for both fortune and misery for it was already delayed in taking decisions about who would pay the fare and all that.

Some of the stalwart wisdom-personified expressed peerless opinions occasionally setting a false discourse or a false monologue for public consumption. Let me assure these stalwarts that no intellectual intended to point out any executive and hang him for wrong-doings or question the authority of the Judiciary. At most some of them as I perused the relevant literature including those of medical practitioners were annoyed about the timing of decisions that made the already received outcome and outcome-on-way difficult to tackle if human life or living remained a major concern.

As the concerned competent authority the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) took aeronautical trajectory – ran the plane on the airport ground for 40+ days, accelerated speed and then took off. For absence of accurate data, what I understood was that the MHA was not sitting silent – it issued more than one Order/Notice per day since the lockdown was announced that also included immobility of the migrant workers from where they were. It could have been that the mobility of the migrant workers would have spread the virus among the privileged non-migrant parasites. I failed to find any policy on this – Order is hardly any policy.

Or, if there was/is any policy on the knife-edge instability of the migrant workers, that failed for these workers started walking on road and railway tracks after they had been abandoned by the thekedars/employers for “no work-no wage’’. The workers decided for Ghar Wapsi – I have no idea if the policy-makers have ideas about double settlement of the migrant workers and for what tenure. But the migrant workers must have been sobbing when the balcony people were clapping – the latter to drive out Corona virus by 21-day declared war on it through lockdown. The migrant workers were unlocked and knocked down in the process. 

But whatever it had been, now the rate of spread of Corona virus may multiply for community living practices of the returnee workers in their respective villages. Police controls towns better – not the villages. I am informed by my office table boy that police batoned the people in local bazaar in Sahabpur in UP for breaking the lockdown rule what they did not know – I mean the rule and not the announcement. The returnee migrant workers now seen as village neighbours will be accused as virus spreaders. Who is at fault?

Generally people understand history as a consequence – hardly the processes are understood and the initial conditions are invisible or the root of history is difficult to locate. Thus, once the migrant workers under whatever pressure – from armchair intellectuals or media or senior citizens – have been allowed not to die at the destination but to come back home, though not all, the consequential syndrome is inevitable.

For absence of carrying capacity of the village economy, some will go back to the previous destination or a new destination for biological survival. The spread of the virus will be in circulation. The accused will remain the same – the victims.

What is needed, thus, is a policy on migration that some of the pioneering states have started thinking about – how to retain the workers minus protective labour laws so that the state class derives benefits from labour in nation-building. The labourer will maintain centre-distancing.                                  

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

Back to Home Page

Jun 6, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

Your Comment if any