Nous Indica

Three-fold failure

Centre, states and society left migrant workers to fend for themselves

Rajesh Ramachandran

As the paddy season fast approaches, farmers fear their fields lying fallow. When farmers anxiously stare at a bleak crop, the nation can only helplessly blink at the prospects of food scarcity, for our overflowing granaries are but the distilled sweat of the brow of our migrant labourers. They and their brethren in the cities and villages of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and elsewhere have been mercilessly driven out by loss of livelihood, anxiety, employers and landlords. This disaster ought to get mitigated right away to avert an even bigger crisis during the Kharif season.

Now, the least the government should do is to let the migrants choose their mode of transport.

The Minimum Support Price (MSP) still makes farming sustainable for the farmers of Punjab and Haryana because of the cheap labour that produces wheat and rice. The migrants settle for half the local labour cost. They come and go back without leaving a trace; with no leave travel concession, healthcare, accident cover, children's education or collective bargaining. They subsidise the nation's food bill. These farm labourers and their counterparts in the industrial units are the ones who are walking or cycling thousands of kilometres in the height of summer because there has been a complete breakdown of administrative support and empathy at three distinct levels — Central and state governments and society.

When the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown for 21 days on March 24, the Central government made a few assumptions: that the employers would pay the full salary for the entire lockdown period; that the landlords would waive the rent for the same period; that the poor — like the middle and upper classes — would consider life to be more important than livelihood. All the three assumptions were proved wrong. The Tribune had reported the story of a group of workers from Chandigarh who walked all the way till the Yamuna banks in Haryana’s Karnal to hang on to rafts made of worn-out tyre tubes to cross the river on their way back home in Lucknow because the police were not allowing them to cross over to UP by road even on foot.

Why would they do it if life is more important than livelihood? For the workers, the chances of this makeshift raft toppling are many times more than that of them getting infected by the coronavirus. Yet, they wagered their lives for a journey back home. Life without the dignity of a livelihood might have appeared worthless even for those who are accustomed to hunger and humiliation.

Sure, the Centre’s assumptions were all wrong, but the state governments behaved as if these migrant labourers were some stranded travellers with no means to go back. The host states refused to acknowledge that these were the hands that turned the wheels of life in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Ludhiana, Baddi or Gurugram. The state governments simply had to assure the landlords and employers of compensation, instead of finally settling to offer food as charity in relief centres. If the state governments did not have the wherewithal to reassure the employers and landlords, they had every responsibility to ring the alarm bells and get the Centre to act. But the host states did nothing. The chaos at the Anand Vihar Bus Station in East Delhi in March was the first warning signal, but it went unheeded.

Even after the exodus began, the host states have not done what was required of them: identify industrial units that are closing down, residential clusters that are pushing workers out and self-employed groups that are penniless to reassure them, offer them monetary support and ensure that they do not get desperate. No story of misery seems to have moved the host states to feel that they are accountable for their workers - so what if they belonged to some other state? All through the lockdown, the attempt by the administrative machinery across the country was to ruthlessly enforce the lockdown, not allowing any economic activity, being unmindful of the proportionality of its actions.

If the host states abandoned the workers, the home states revealed why the migrants flee in the first place. UP and Bihar, which unfortunately decide who should rule the country, yet again proved they do not care even for their voters. Social distancing is a cruel joke for people who are huddling together inside the belly of a cement mixer. UP or Bihar, obviously, does not have the luxury of maintaining WHO standards while handling homebound migrants pushed out by the host states. All they are willing to do is to push them back, leaving them on a raft and a prayer on the Yamuna.

Even the Shramik trains or the special trains could not make a difference because many of the migrants could not navigate the websites to register themselves and a large majority never got their tickets confirmed. The Tribune caught up with a group of migrants walking from Amritsar to Ballia in eastern UP, who had received ticket confirmation messages from the Railways on their mobile phones, but none about boarding the trains.

Apart from the failure of the Central and the state governments, this was a moment of monumental collapse of societal empathy. The lockdown would not have taken this disastrous turn had the middle classes — the employers, Resident Welfare Associations, the customers, the service-seekers and landlords — been humane.

Now, the least the government should do is to let the migrants choose their mode of transport, be it bus or train, and not be bound by governmental schemes of Shramik or special trains, which are simply not enough. The end of the lockdown should be the end of the misery for the most miserable and not just the middle classes. If it does not happen now, the same government will be compelled to run special trains just to bring in migrant labour for paddy transplanting and to restart the economy.

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