The Apex Court in Command: where are we?

Bhaskar Majumder

Now the Apex Court has expressed its wisdom not to tolerate further any legislative-executive delay, be it the Centre or the states on the circumference. It has given the ultimatum by time mandate on 5th June, 2020 that by next 15 days all stranded migrant workers have to be transported to their native places. The Apex Court fixed the date to pronounce its order as June 9 on the issue that covers the registration and employment opportunities of the migrant workers. The Apex Court was informed by the Centre that till June 3, over 4,200 Shramik Special trains had been deployed to transport migrant workers to their native places. The Centre also informed that till June 3, over one crore migrant workers had been transported to their destinations (home states) through trains and buses and most of the trains ended up in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Centre also informed the Apex Court that the state governments could tell the Centre how many more migrant workers would need to be shifted and how many trains would be required for that purpose. The Centre assured the Apex Court that necessary trains were being made available to the concerned states and it would be provided in future as well when demands were raised. It was future indefinite.

Ultimately. And what a radical departure from what these wings of people’s democracy did during the first 40+ days of lockdown declared. It was not even understood by armchair intellectuals if the migrant workers were nationals, non-nationals, anti-nationals – whether something like trans-state workers existed and all that. There was the Inter-state Migration Act 1979, of course. But the migrant workers did not carry the Act with them before migrating what most of them did while migrating as indentured labourers in British India – it was then not 1979 Act but Hanumanchalisha or Ramcharitmanas that they carried. The history of indentured labour is well documented by Amiya Bagchi in his well researched book “Political Economy of Underdevelopment’’ and by other scholars.

Now that the states on the circumference are expected to announce the number of migrant workers stranded elsewhere, the ball or burden is transferred from the Centre to the states – the states may fail to tell the number very soon for the migrant workers migrated in a number of ways – it was survival question and not Passport-Visa question – no such documents were needed at sortie. They moved by trains-buses-trucks-tractors – how could the state governments tell the number or even the mode of transport? Many people in India move out on tractor for taking a dip in the Ganga. It could have been identifying the registered thekedars/employers at destination states and compel them to tell the number and then made them responsible pre-announcement of lockdown. There are often chains in migration that was what I observed just outside Anand Bihar railway station in Delhi a few years back where the migrant workers on-wait in group reached from district Saharsh in Bihar led by one group leader and waiting for a truck to come to take them to Punjab.

Delay has different meaning depending on the purpose. Shubhasso Shighram – in auspicious works, don’t make any delay. The lockdown announcement had only four hours for its imposition. In India that is Bharat everything takes time otherwise. The Apex Court also took time – self-decided or guided by the legislative-executive wings of the state in initiating steps to look into the migrant workers’ question. In my memory, one High Court took steps ahead of the Apex Court – but that is not a major point. One spatial aspect has been re-acknowledged – it is BUP (Bihar-UP) as the major outmigration states though the number of migrant workers is still unknown. If for states and hence for the country the total number of migrant workers in circulation is not known, how do these states tell what is the residue for the number already transported is to be subtracted from a total number – the latter unknown.

There are, of course, experts on migration studies but perhaps they also never thought this question would ever come. This is like economists’ notion of disguised unemployment – theory was meticulously formulated since early 1960s but it was not told how to identify those disguised, it might have been difficult if not impossible. Here it was disguised migrant workers until they started walking 1,000 km. on road and many dying for different reasons – state or railways cannot be accused for their death. But why did they start walking?

To re-iterate, they started walking for they got oxygen-less. Their oxygen was their roti-roji, this roti included food and cash, where separately the term cash needs no mention. While the daily commuters or resident workers (MNREGA or labour chauraha) carry roti-sabji in Tiffin box to save cost and fill-in stomach, the long-distant migrant workers engaged in construction works cannot do that. They need cash to buy chaowl-sabji from bazaar to cook early morning or in evening. Often Chulha and fuel are provided by the thekedar/employer. The decision-making authorities in the Centre and the states know all these.

So somehow the first 40+ days of lockdown could be spent. Next announcement of extension of lockdown was unexpected for these migrant workers – they were innocent. By 40+ days their meagre savings got exhausted, they were abandoned by the thekedars/employers, wages remained unpaid, and the question of bargain was beyond their reach. So they started walking. Government at the Centre reported to the contrary – it decided not to see anybody on road – might be because of its Aerial survey or otherwise. The bottom-line workers often remain disguised – this is disguised employment and not disguised unemployment.

So far I failed to understand who represented the migrant workers – state, civil society, intellectuals, trade unions or migrant workers themselves. In my experience that is outdated for I brought labourers from the district Nawada in Bihar to brick kiln in Barasat in West Bengal by a bus around 1984/1985 and spent night in the kiln with the labourers I did not find any union represented them. Of course the brick kiln was under the hawkish eye of the local political musclemen that had been taken care of through means known to almost all my readers. If migrant workers are not represented by unions and if people are home-locked, then how could the Apex Court know about them? The Apex Court was not walking on the public road with these workers and not doing action research.

Pending information on the above, it seems a great leap forward that the Apex Court came forward ultimately to engage the governments at the Centre and the states on the circumference to check if all came back home. This reminded me my grandmother who during 1967-1977 at the end of the day used to ask who was left out – it was then 40-member joint family post-partition 1947. In one of my notes I offered food-for-thought if the state could function as a mother at home (India internal). Now I found the grandmother – proxy.              

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

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Jun 8, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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