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Migrant workers – do they exist in our popular psyche?

By DM Deshpande

‘Some there are who live in darkness,

While others live in light,

We see those live in daylight,

Those in darkness out of sight.’

This was written by German poet Brecht about a hundred years ago. How true it sounds in today’s India. Does it not sum up the present plight of migrant workers in India? The preamble of the Indian Constitution starts with these famous words ‘We the People of India’. The illustrious team of intellectuals who framed our constitution would have been shocked by the treatment meted out to the largest section of
our population!

  While lockdown did achieve the goal of putting a break on spread of the virus, it also reflected the massive planning failure to deal with needs, aspirations and actions of the migrant workers. Ironically even the course corrective action came late. Worse it came in piecemeal and was characterized by adhocism, arbitrariness and complete lack of human element.

At the root of the problem is that migrant worker simply does not exist in popular psyche. They are perceived to be illiterate, unhygienic and a menace to the society. Generally they are available in plenty, hired for a pittance and can be easily exploited by all and sundry. They are unorganized and therefore do not form a pressure group in a democratic set up.

That is why no one knows how many of them are there in the states and in the country as a whole. The government in its submission to the Supreme Court in April maintained that around 1.5 million workers are on the move. Gujarat alone reported 2 million workers who had registered to go back to their home states. Chinmay Tumbe, migration scholar, estimates that 10 million people leave in search of work every year in India.

Not more than two lakh workers have gone back to their states till now. Clearly a lot of people in the official hierarchy are not doing their jobs. There are labour departments, inspectors everywhere. We have probably the highest numbers of laws ostensibly to safeguard interests of workers. On the ground, however, workers work in dangerous, unhygienic and utmost difficult conditions as a rule, not
an exception.

This general apathy towards a large human group also explains the reason why we have stopped making an estimate of poverty line in India. When it was last made in 2011-12, 22 per cent of the population was estimated to be below the poverty line. In the meantime, India’s GDP has nearly doubled and rise in population has been just 10 per cent. Therefore, numbers of those below the poverty line must have come down quite substantially.

  In reality, definition of poverty is hopelessly outdated. It has been replaced by dignity line. A lot of daily wage earners today migrate to greener pastures. Rice is being harvested in Telangana; it needs labour and it gets some of it from as far away as Bihar because daily wage on offer is Rs.1200, which is three times the average wage in their home state. Goa too gets its construction and manual workers from other states since the wages are far higher. The popular imagination of a farm worker wearing a white dhoti and ‘topi’ has changed to jeans and T shirt clad farmer!   Unfortunately, these transformational changes have gone unnoticed. Some states did make arrangements for their stay, food and television entertainment. But this is not what they wanted. They needed the state to provide them transport-trains, buses to ferry them to their home towns.  

   And when they did not get it, they set on foot or whatever form of transport that came their way. Most unfortunately, some ventures of these groups met with disaster; people dying of hunger, disease and exhaustion. In one of the most tragic incidents, 16 workers died near Aurangabad when they decided to sleep on railway tracks at night.

There is an urgent need to re-visit the poverty line concept and probably replace it by a more comprehensive and relevant empowerment line developed by Mckinsey. It is a line that demarcates population on the basis of access to eight basic needs of life with some dignity. They are drinking water, sanitation, education, energy, food, healthcare, housing and social security. In 2014, when they undertook a study, 56 pr cent of the Indian population was below empowerment line. Had more Indians been above this line, migrant crisis would have been far less in magnitude
and impact.

There is some relaxation in lockdown restrictions. The economy is opening up and businesses keen to re-start. Migrant workers who have waited for so many days without work (and in several places without food, too) are now in exodus mode to their native places. Some of them are swearing that they would not come back due to the ill treatment meted out to them by employers and governments. Payment of fare for their journey became an issue. Some states are reluctant to take them back for fear of spreading the Covid 19.

The issue of migrant workers has been messed up and it is time to give it a healing and human touch. Two corrective steps can be taken now, urgently. One, issue of pan-India ration card and second, travel arrangements by trains and public transport buses. 

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.

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