Migrant workers on the nowhere land: Are they Aliens?

Bhaskar Majumder

Historically, post-private property, most of the workers did not know where their labour went. As workers, ultimately they knew their working hours but not its equivalence in spite of the fact that they were paid wage per labour-hour. Division of labour with its increasing complexity made it increasingly difficult for the worker to understand the equivalence.

Before I go straight into the focused thought-content, let me tell the context – the context was my conversations with the educated (sic) sections and disguised observations in the Heartland. What I found was a tiny section anti-labour in attitude – it did not matter to this section whether or not the migrant workers lived or died; one section was silent understanding the condition partially; one section was in fear lest he is identified as “urban Naxal’, one section was absolutely incapacitated to understand labour as a labourer.

Now that post-Corona 2019/2020 the migrant workers are walking to come back home, that is, their native village in Bharat, they are likely to either die on road before reaching home, or die not-much-late after reaching home, or die with a time gap for hunger. Even if they survive, for poor people have more immunity or resilience relative to the non-poor, they will be indebted, if not already for they will need to borrow from Mahajans to fulfil food-need at the minimum. I suspect the competent authority abandoned the migrant workers till date.

End-April is the time of end-Rabi season (wheat mainly) and start-Khariff season. The workers who migrated some months back and desperately trying to come back home for being out of ‘roti-roji’ at the destination for state-sponsored lockdown for 40+ days may be fortunate if they get engaged in agriculture and/or MNREGA. By any elasticity of imagination, engagement in agriculture for such a large size of workers coming back may not be possible. At the same time, they cannot re-migrate to the same or different destination for the thekedar/employer at the destination got rid of them by non-payment of wages that the migrant workers were entitled to for work or paid wages by wage-cut and other such methods. Also, the workers who had been casual in organized sector the record of which is rare, the non-payment is never questioned. Most of these engagements are oral and hence cannot be questioned by the workers. Also, will the workers wait to bargain empty-stomach or try to come back home? It was a different question that they assembled somewhere and got battoned. It is a different question that they started walking on foot for the state failed them – they were expendable.

This was not like ‘Workers of the World, Unite’, as one may be enthusiastic to write. Just as it was not ‘reverse migration’ for it was not an economic decision – it happened for the workers decided to die in front of the family rather than die or disappear at the destination unnoticed. While the civil society could help a little to feed them in some regions, capital went to the Apex Court to stop paying the wages-for-no-work. Capital thought Corona was a natural calamity – while the state did not declare it a natural calamity. In any case, it is in the court of the Apex Court. Workers are nowhere in these processes.

So, if the migrant workers are not in the destination and not in the Court, and have not reached their own home, then where are they? Re-iterating, they are on the public road. Many of the workers used to stand on road-junctions called labour chouraha in Uttar Pradesh, Naka in Maharashtra and so on. The sleeping space used to be labour colonies, road dividers, space adjoining temples etc. Apart from wherever they were engaged, they understood the public road. So they are on the road. They obviously violated the mandate of the Government of India to remain home-locked for 40+ days. Some of them were adamant also – expressed that nobody could stop them from walking on road! I am not sure about it for the concept of “eminent domain’’ following Roman law.

By 40+ days, whatever wages they got after adjustment got exhausted. For no work, they had to go somewhere – it was their attempts to come back home. What these migrant workers at the destinations were concerned with was cramped living space by space-man ratio, apart from inability to pay for use of Sulabh Sauchalaya each day. They lost ‘living on their own terms’ – they were dragged to a condition of begging. The home-coming was also felt for psychological attachment to family members. Some migrants opined anti-migration outlook without understanding Economics of Migration, of course.   

Now imagine the national loss for the fault of the migrant workers. Had they stayed at the destination as per Advisory, they could have been used in works that could have added value to national output. That did not happen. Had the workers not migrated to the destination for positive wage-differential (sic), they would have been engaged in MNREGA works for 100 days per worker/household to create national wealth. That also did not happen.

As I am informed, most of these migrant workers are from Bihar – and workers from Bihar are notorious – they are capacitated to reach anywhere in India and work in any conditions. These workers belong to Bhagalpur, Khagaria, Begusarai, Munger, Saharsa, Madhepura, Purnea, Katihar, Araria, Darbhanga, Jehanabad, and Gaya in Bihar. All they are manual workers – less educated – so, less treacherous. They are less educated but card-empowered, including Aadhar. Now the Government of Bihar has disowned them. The Government of India is silent on their misfortune. The destination state is on wait – the sooner they leave the frontier of the state, the better. After all, the Government feels hesitant to say, “I don’t know’’, for the workers are walking on road – visible. Meanwhile, around 18 migrant adult workers were found crammed inside a cement mixer in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh who were coming back to Uttar Pradesh from Maharashtra, the mixer joined with a truck! One silver lining in all these micro phenomena is the beginning of sending back migrant workers by a special train, not to be a precedent to follow, from the state of Telengana on 01st May, 2020 to their home-state Jharkhand. The train would download workers in Hathia – no halt mid-way. This was arranged by the Government of India on the request of the Government of Telengana. On May 01, 2020 I was informed the Government of India launched six Shramik trains to carry the workers from destination to home. Stop-go measures of the competent authority, it seems. But the workers have to pay train fare+. There is no free lunch for the poor in India, as may be elsewhere.  

The problems are galore. Initially, inter-state movement was banned as announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, as electronically informed. But some states plied buses to bring back students from Kota. It seems buses could run inter-state. Then could the migrant workers walk inter-state? One answer could be, buses pay road tax, the pedestrians do not pay road tax. I am not sure if there are persons in toll tax booth to stop these migrant workers from walking, paying tax or free-lunch (walking). But then there is police. The tomorrow-not-seen workers are adamant – walking, come what may for they may die anytime. I am not sure if their home-state will welcome them for they are untouchable post-Corona – this untouchability is not caste-determined. Also, the families and neighbours – will they welcome them for fear has been inflicted in them because of Corona-gossip? Miles to go before the migrant workers sleep!  

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

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May 8, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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