We are nearing the end of May and lakhs of workers are still making their way every day across the country from the industrial metros to their villages in UP, Bihar, MP, Orissa, Bengal and other eastern states.
It is an incredible reverse migration, a movement of millions of people the likes of which we have not witnessed since independence. The exodus started when the lockdown was extended after 21 days in mid April. Since then, we have seen a continuous stream of workers on the highways with their meagre belongings, walking, or riding on cycles, motorbikes, autos and taxis, or hitching rides in tankers and trucks, even incredibly sailing in boats to reach their villages anywhere from hundreds to a couple of thousand kms away.
Belatedly, from May 1, the central government started point to point trains to transport workers home, but these have been sufficient only to meet a fraction of the demand. Getting a ticket on one of these trains involves negotiating a kafkaesque bureaucracy and for the worker is like winning a lottery ticket. The movement by road has continued unabated during May as many workers gave up on the trains after repeated attempts and decided to make the journey on their own.
How many workers have left so far? The government on May 23rd claimed that a total of 7.5 million workers had returned to their villages, 3.5 million by trains. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher. No government, at the centre or in the states, has an idea of the number of workers who are travelling making their own arrangements.
Who are these people so desperate to return?
The media terms them “migrant workers”. The term conjures up an image of people moving around “here and there”, from one work site to another for a short period before heading back home. Like seasonal labourers at a construction site who, come harvest, head back to their villages and fields.
But those on the road are not just construction labour, street vendors, brick kiln workers and the like who may have a seasonal cycle. There are Metal fabricators, machinists, carpenters, textile workers, diamond cutters, tailors, restaurant workers, security guards, taxi and auto drivers. They live in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Surat, Ludhiana and Jalandhar. They have been in the city for years, some for a decade or more.
These are workers of small and medium factories and enterprises. Some could be working even in large projects and for government through a contractor like the workers building “Namma Metro” or managing garbage for BBMP in Bengaluru. Others like the taxi drivers are self employed.
True they were born in some other state. True they do not have their own houses and stay in rented accommodation. True they have a certain attachment to their ancestral villages. But does any of this justify calling them migrants?
Switch for a moment to the famed software engineers of Bengaluru? Most of them have come from other places to work here, many stay in rented accommodation and may move to another city when they find it opportune. We do not refer to them as “migrant software engineers”, do we? Students come from all over India to study in Bengaluru? We don’t refer to them as migrant students do we? Then why the appellate “migrant” for workers from out of state?
What is so problematic with this terminology, one may ask?
The labelling of out-of-state workers as “migrant labour” allows the government to abdicate on its basic responsibilities to them as citizens. In Bengaluru for example, these workers despite working here for 8-10 years are not able to participate in local elections and do not have access to the public distribution system or any type of health insurance. Labour laws do no apply to them. In the eyes of the state, they have no individual identity except being part of collective “migrant labour”.
A worker who has thus been recast as “migrant labour” is easy prey for the would be employers who can take advantage of his low status and pay less for his labour. Businesses’s thrive on this labour. It is a cosy arrangement between employers and the state. After keeping money for basic expenses, workers send money home to their families. These workers have no savings.
For these workers, lockdown has meant loss of wages. Many have not been paid even for the work they did in March. The government has been content to appeal to employers to pay workers and landlords to not take rent but this expectedly has made no difference on the ground. With no access to rations, even food has become difficult. Workers feel abandoned by their employers as well as the state.
Stuck in an alien heartless country, all the workers want to do is make their way home. The common refrain is “We will die of hunger if we stay here any longer. We will make our way to our village and be with family. True, we may get infected with the virus on the way. But if we die, at least it will be in the presence of our loved ones”.
When the lockdown was extended in April, workers started coming on the streets, clashing with the police and making their desire to go home very clear. They initially had hope that the government would understand their plight and arrange trains or busses to get them home. Finding that there was no help forthcoming, many decided to take things into their own hands and started walking towards their villages.
In making the journey, workers have had to defy the lockdown, brave police persecution and hunger, suffer unimaginable physical hardship and literally put their life on the line. Many have perished on the road, some after reaching their destination.
Those making their own way on the highways travel through a hostile land. Villagers living in the vicinity of the highway are suspicious that they may be carrying the virus and are positively unwelcoming. State boundaries are a huge challenge.
In the words of Vikramjeet, a carpenter who made his way from Ahmedabad to his village in Uttar Pradesh some 1300 km away after walking for 13 days, “ borders are created within the country; people are moving like cattle; there are check-posts everywhere and all is uncertain now, like at the time of independence.” Before starting on his trek, he had spent 8 days visiting Ahmedabad railway station every morning to see if he could board a train home.
The central government has the keys to what the stranded workers desperately need - transport by trains to their home states. When it permitted workers to travel to their homes in early May, it could easily have organised trains on a continuous basis and provided access directly for workers like the way it has organised “Vande Bharat” missions to bring Indian Citizens from outside the country.
Instead, workers have been treated as if they were the sole responsibility of the state where they were working and the state where their village was located. The central government is content to be just a transport operator, providing rail service. A worker is able to travel only if he registers his need with two states, the two agree to a train service between them and he is lucky enough to be selected for a seat allotment by those taking the decision on who should travel. In the eyes of the central government, the worker appears to be a second class citizen.
As of this writing (May 27), the government claims that they are moving 3.5 lakh workers a day by trains. The numbers registered with the state governments show no signs of decreasing. It appears that the mass exodus will continue into June.
When the workers have eventually made their way to their homes - as they surely will - and the dust settles on this great migration, what will remain in many million minds is the memory of betrayal by employers, weeks of hunger, authorities devoid of humanity and a long march through a hostile country, an idea of India in tatters. Most deny that they will ever come back; poverty and unemployment will force some to change their resolve.
May 28 2010