Lockdown: Migrant labourers’ nightmarish spectacle

Coronavirus Lockdown: Migrant labourers’ nightmarish spectacle

Migrant labourers and families from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states hold kitchen utensils as they protest against the government for the lack of food at a slum area during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-1

The national lockdown will not be an entire waste if the nation takes notice of the several longstanding issues and develops adequate responses to address them. The pandemic-induced flight of the migrant labourers is one of them. Their sordid plight has been etched in memory forever.

Droves of the bedraggled humanity has been seen walking along the spick and span highways with children in dishevelled state in tow. With dread in their eyes and balancing disproportionately large headloads over the frail bodies of their women, the hungry and thirsty masses have been heading to an uncertain future foisted on them by the totally thoughtless fathers of the administration.  

India has witnessed fast-paced urbanisation since the dawn of economic liberalisation in 1991. As of now, 31.16% of the nation’s population lives in urban areas. Although no accurate data is available, the number of migrant labour is estimated to be around 100 million. The Census 2011 had pegged the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movements) at a whopping 139 million. 

The Economic Survey of India 2017 had estimated that around nine million people were migrating annually between states during the 2011-2016 period. According to Aajeevika Bureau (Livelihood Bureau), an NGO working for amelioration of migrant labour in Rajasthan and Gujarat, the construction industry is the largest employer of the migrant labourers at 40 million. Next come domestic workers at 20 million, mostly womenfolk of the migrant males. Brick kiln work takes another 10 million while mines, quarries, transportation, hotels etc mainly depend on huge migrant labour.

Migrant labour has fostered prosperity for regions in the past. In the 19th century, migrations were eastward, towards Burma, Bengal, Assam and south-eastern nations. The tide turned westwards towards Bombay, Gujarat and Punjab in 20th century and the Gulf nations, if overseas migrations too were to be taken into account. Come 21st century, southern states began to attract them in their thousands.  

Catalyst: Migration is just as essential a corollary of industrialisation as is urbanisation. However, one might detest this fact: it is recognised that cheap labour available from rural areas has been the major catalyst for fast-paced growth of economy since 1991. 

A look at the ‘source’ and ‘destination’ of the migrant labour provides an insight into the disparity in economic development of the country. Nine metropolitan cities (National Capital Region Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Kochi) have been the major magnets for the rural-urban migrant labour.

 As for the rural-rural migrants, Punjab, Haryana, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh attract the majority of them. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh which are yet to have a metropolitan city, are the major sources of supply. They have been lately joined by their splinter-states like Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh and Odisha and the entire North East.   

Easy game: Migrant workers constitute the largest chunk of the country’s unorganised work sector, vulnerable to all that is wrong with the pattern of national growth. Fleeing the rural poverty, they fall prey to contractors and exploitative rings of mafia in cities. Unskilled, devoid of even the nascent awareness of labour rights, they wield least bargaining power.

Lacking even the basic proficiency in the languages spoken in the ‘destination’ states and robbed off their domicile status, they are game for slumlords, water supplying mafia and corporators. Their miseries are directly proportional to the distance between ‘source’ and the ‘destination’ states in terms of food, culture, legal status, identity and wages.

Forces advocating parochialism and partisan attitude of administration keep them on tenterhooks. Destination states, the beneficiaries of their sweat and toil, have never been heard of being charitable to them, not even recognising the pleas for basic entitlements of decent shelter, ration, education for their kids or subsidised healthcare. 

Portability: Underpaid, a majority of the migrants have no social security system. With clout of the trade unions in decline, they can scarcely demand fair wages. Surveys point out that women and children bear the blues of migration more severely. Most women have been found to be undernourished. 

Moreover, with female folk staying back in parent states, they exhibit skewed gender ratio. They mostly live in slums or shanties in areas vulnerable to floods, fire and violence by the land mafia. Several persons share congested spaces thereby burdening an infrastructure not designed for human habitation. They are regulated under an archaic Inter-State Migrant Workers Act 1980.

In a more connected world, it is imperative that some thought must be given for provision of ‘portability of social security’ whereby parent and destination states could share the responsibility for their physical security, health, kids’ education and shelter. 

If indeed Bharat has to homogenise into India, people who contribute their sweat, blood and toil to the prosperity of their destination states, should not be seen being part of the nightmarish spectacle that we have been witness to during the last few days.