Labour-powered Bharat in Hunger: Why?

Bhaskar Majumder

If my friends on the left did not, my friends on the right must have read Kautilya and my friends on the centre often pretend to have read all the literature – friends on the centre often sit on the fence for they act like lizards ready to change colour as and when new opportunities come that promote private utilities. While friends on the left are mostly left out in West Bengal after one eventful decade (2011-2020), the left at the bottom of India geographically speaking were at the top in terms of performance with human face post-Corona, 2019/2020 whether or not nationally acknowledged. Kerala proved left still has a role to play for people in crises.

As I recollect, food security in Kautilya was the responsibility of the head of the family and in his failure it is the responsibility of the state/king. This contrasts the response of my PG-level students at both Patna and Allahabad that it is the responsibility of “Mummy’’ (mother). Nothing extraordinarily glorifiable that the state has come forward to feed the people in need for the “roti-roji’’ of the destination-locked migrant workers was lost for the past 50+ days. No roji for 50+ days for such workers is not to be juxtaposed with ‘forced non-work’ by these workers in real estate sector or factories to justify feeding the capital controllers on road. I did not find any face of these controllers sitting for food on public space – waiting long hours as observed in Anand Bihar in Delhi and elsewhere. One of my parasite friends earning uninterrupted high salary from peoples’ resources in the Heartland opined that these sit-on-road people were really wealthy – wealth was concealed. I could not tell him, “so you go to sit on public road to beg food’’ for fear that I was also a migrant. The reason why I recall this, lest my readers misunderstand me (or the state interprets it as spreading hatred) was the unbridgeable gap between the well off and the have-nots.

Why were people sitting on the road while most of them started walking on road to reach home? I do not have all the answers for I am also home-locked and other than electronic/telephonic/media reports there is no scope to get engaged in primary survey. Based on my past experience of many decades what I opine is, a lot left on foot, a lot in Shramik special trains and the residue sitting on public road for food to survive. So, this camera-visible faces were residue but this residue also may not be a small number. The whole is not known, so calculating what percentage is sitting on road is not possible to tell now.

Are these workers at Anand Bihar and elsewhere unwilling to go back home for absence of work there or for presence of, or still hope for, work at the destination? If I rely on my past findings, it may be that many of them still expect to stay back for roti-roji. In one of my studies, I found the worker standing on labour chauraha in Rambag area of the city of Allahabad who did not get work for the day and his Tiffin box brought from home got empty by the end of the day and he did not go back home for he would have been asked by his wife what cash did he bring to feed the family. The worker would have no answer.         

Was the staying back because of fear in travel by train? Though one or two migrant workers died in journey, explained as heart failure and not because of hunger by the competent authority for wisdom-deficit in tautology, it was probably not the reason for these workers are less equal in society – death is accepted by them as fait accompli. While one migrant worker who originated from otherwise peace-loving Odisha was beaten to death in Surat for protesting, one committed suicide in Ludhina on May 9 after failing to find food for his family for a part of the lockdown period.

The concerned Ministry till mid-May, 2020 decided not to see any hunger for Corona 2019/2020. However, individuals serving the migrants and NGOs engaged reported to the contrary. I feel a little biased for my own family members were engaged in this support in the city of Bangalore that was supposedly a little better administered relative to many other metropolitan cities. There came of course support from the city administration.

Lest history is forgotten, since March 25 till completion of 2nd round of lockdown, the migrant workers had no idea what to do by what time they got their meagre wage-saving exhausted on food. The announcement of free food under PDS and portability of ration card from the Ministry for migrant workers came post-40+ days of lockdown the impact of which is pending for it depends on many factors.
Let it not be surprising that the Apex Court knew the imminent hunger in Bharat for on February 10, it imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh each on the state governments of Punjab, Nagaland, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand and the Ministries of Law and Justice, Women and Child Development, Social Justice and Empowerment, and Rural Development of the Government of India for failing to inform what steps had been taken to ensure food security to the destitute and homeless people and those not having Aadhaar. In November 2019, the court had asked the Centre to respond to a petition demanding the setting up of community kitchens to bring down mortality because of starvation and malnutrition. So with or without Corona 2019/2020, hunger question was there on Indian soil. It was however not clear if each defaulting state paid the fine and if yes, where the sum went.

What disturb me most are frequent sermons from competent corners about the rate of success of India in terms of number of deaths relative to other countries because of Corona. Who buys these sermons? Many for people are innocent and most of them have not crossed India. If food is not fed, ignorance-belief fed. There is no glory that India can soon attain the dubious distinction of single digit rank in number of persons affected or number of deaths as an impact of Corona 2019/2020 that is first phase up to the point it is counted in 2020 – June? September? But India is a large country parallel to China. Why do we compare India with Belgium?

The core point is less Corona and more hunger. Most of world history on this has been well documented including by Dreze and Sen – ‘Hunger and Public Action’. Sure, this is not 1943 Famine – and that famine was also not for food-deficit at production point. But then tolerating hunger at a much lesser scale in 2020 is unacceptable relative to tolerating hunger at a massive scale of 1943 for reasons understood by all. Hunger is man-made, not nature-made. The major reason why the workers were seen sitting on public road for food under the sky in May 2020 was because they were wage-delinked for being work-delinked, in turn, for lockdown. The lockdown was announced by the Government of India. The workers had no prior information. Now it seems clear who is responsible for hunger of the workers who produced food for non-workers.         

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

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May 29, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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