Let us talk sense for migrants’ sake post-Corona 2019/2020

Bhaskar Majumder

Nobody knows, rich or poor, men or women, high caste or low caste, majority or minority, who is coming under the wheel of “Vasanshi Jirnani Yatha’’, not the wheel of goods train on railway track that killed migrants recently or unnumbered migrant workers on road for Bharat walking, but the wheel of Corona-kaalchakra. I was used to find fear on the face of the majority in India, not politically determined of course. Now since I find fear more among the educated-privileged class for tomorrow may come today unwelcome. Let us be honest at least once now for Chitragupta may ask “Did you ever speak the truth while you lived a non-migrant’s life on earth?’’ I believe people care for Chitragupta.
This is about the migrant workers walking on road post 40+ days of imposing Janta Curfew, then lockdown for 21 days, extended by a fortnight and its cumulative extension. The report sent to the Apex Court was no worker was found walking on public road on 31st March as if end of fiscal year would decide if the migrant workers would start walking collectively from April 01, 2020. The migrant workers are not to be befooled – even if they knew their fate, they could not decide to walk 1,000 km. or more to reach Bihar from Mumbai or Delhi or Bhatinda. The self-claimed rational individuals define them as poor and irrational.

My concern is not much with the Government of India or with the Apex Court for each one is far distanced from me even if I try to love them – that is embedded in love theory – you love and she hurts you more. My concern is with the academia and the sections of the civil society who have politely started penning the painful marathon walk under the scorching sunshine of May, 2020 as “reverse migration’’. And that these migrants have learnt lessons not to re-migrate. I differ on both the points. Let me explain.

The world of negation is infinite what it is not. For example, the migrants are not linked with RBI policies, not linked with tax-related fiscal measures, not related with FDI and so on. What they are linked with inter-generationally are land and labour – in standard text book discussion, distanced from capital and organization. First, in the root-villages they work as agricultural labourers and/or as tenants/bargadars/share croppers and earn wages in cash or kind. Some fortunate also practice subsistence farming on the tiny plot of land that they own. There are regional variations on these. Second, they work in the rural economy for four to six months – spend more than what they earn for repayment of outstanding debt, expenses on curative health care that fails generally, and rituals in Brahminical tradition. Third, they re-borrow (as quoted by one MNREGA worker in Bihar, “Ham loan lete hai, wapas karte hai, lete hai, wapas karte hai’’, two-year back after I asked him as a stupid). Fourth, some fortunate make oral contract to work from end-September to April next year in brick kilns that is seven-month gestation period and take advance wages that they know as interest-free.

I am not going to re-create sensitivity for by now it has percolated at the national-international level notwithstanding the indifferent attitude of the Government of India and many of the governments on the circumference about the fate of the expendable migrant workers. As alleged, the Apex Court was part of the same – the difference was the latter was wisdom-weighted. I am also not repeating that the walkers included the children, women including pregnant women, some physically challenged and all that.

Being in the milieu in discourse, the reason I differ from the concept of reverse migration what some of my academic friends found in Bharat walking to home was this coming back was basically non-economic. The walkers did not know what roti-roji they would get once they would come back to their native village. Of course, the Apex Court had the idea that the rest half of the year would provide them 100-day work under MNREGA. God bless the wisdom of the Apex Court. It was also mentioned by the Apex Court that these MNREGA workers were not employees but were mere “beneficiaries’’. If so, how could these persons demand works rights-based and get works too? I did not find anybody in my robust study on MNREGA covering UP-Bihar-MP-Rajasthan-Maharashtra-Odisha two-year back who got Unemployment Allowance and hardly any worker knew it as rights-based. It is a different question if the workers outside organized segment of India’s economy know any rights.

They were going back to their home in Bihar-UP-Jharkhand-West Bengal-Odisha for they thought they would die at home in front of their relatives and not die or disappear at the destination or on road or railway track. It had no Economics – or Economics was not visualized. Just as I abstain from looking at marriage as migration, so also I abstain from saying this coming back under distress as reverse-migration – though I do not know if the girl married by arrangement in patriarchy felt distressed by dislocation or relocation.

Will the migrant workers or walkers come back or re-migrate? My answer is yes, for most of them. Will they not learn from history? My response is, no. Even if some of them learn, they will suppress it. They will re-migrate. Let us keep in mind that this migration and the would-be re-migration are not determined by positive wage-differential. I asked many of the MNREGA workers in UP-Bihar, “Agar gaon me 150 rupea mile dinme, owr Mumbai-Dilli me 300 rupea mile, to kya karoge?’’ and most of them replied immediately, “gaon me rahenge.’’ Some of the readers, particularly the students in UG-level Economics, may be surprised. Let me repeat what I wrote long back that remained unnoticed.

Because of geographic-historical reasons the locally settled people got dispossessed from their cultivable land that converted them into labourers. The landlords as rent-seekers in UP, for example, created conditions to extract surplus from the landless labourers. The landlords offered them loans which the labourers had to borrow to survive. Failing to understand credit mystery, the labourers became indebted. The landlords had to recover the principal money plus interest. The only way out was to allow these indebted labourers to migrate temporarily and come back with the repayable money. The landlord remained Annadata for these migrant labourers. The Bihar story was both similar and different. Post-abolition of the system of labour bondage through the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act, 1976, the government of Bihar circulated an order in October “not to regard attached labour as a form of bondage....”.

The above shows a “cage syndrome’’ where the exploited potential migrants were tied through an informal credit system. Local living-dying for the labourer was/is an integral component of their culture that was preferred to death-disappearance in unknown destinations. Though rooted, the labourers need migration for survival at root – they come back or try to come back. Landlords tie them to land but do not provide them wage-engagement more than six months. Six-month wages are inadequate to live as human beings. MNREGA could fill-in the gap that it could not. Unemployment allowance was a vacuum. Migration remained a compulsion – it will remain a compulsion.  The question is when it re-starts; the question is not if it re-starts.

The following are some of the points for recapitulation if my readers are still not convinced:

  1. Land distribution has remained highly skewed, including Benaami land.
  2. For some states like Kerala, it is absolute land-deficit.
  3. It is mono-cropping, excepting a few states like Punjab, Haryana.
  4. It is real estate or landed aristocracy and not large farms – so, no factory farming.
  5. Mahajans determine the rural credit market, some of them landlords also.
  6. Marginal farmers mostly leased out land for non-profitability.
  7. Outstanding debt of marginal farmers, tenants and agricultural labourers prolongs.
  8. Interestricks (Interest tricks) befool the borrowers: Principal is never repaid.

Migration remains the way to earn and fill-in the coffer of the landlords/Mahajans. The vultures enjoy over the dead body of the migrant.  

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

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May 26, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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