Doc­u­ment­ing the story of In­dia’s mi­grant dis­tress

Eastern Ut­tar Pradesh and Bi­har are home to some of In­dia’s poor­est peo­ple. The cri­sis has hit them hard

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - COMMENT -

Ever since the lock­down be­gan, sto­ries of mi­grant work­ers have haunted the coun­try. These sto­ries of suf­fer­ing and hard­ship have be­come the face of the coro­n­avirus dis­ease (Covid-19) in In­dia’s megac­i­ties. There is an eerie sim­i­lar­ity to many of them, high­light­ing an un­equal so­ci­ety that has caused a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis to erupt dur­ing an un­prece­dented health cri­sis.

Ear­lier in the lock­down, one of us no­ticed two chil­dren who lived on the con­struc­tion site next door. They said noth­ing and asked for noth­ing, but there was hunger and cu­rios­ity in their eyes. They were the chil­dren of Ranju, a mi­grant worker from Bi­har, who worked at the con­struc­tion site. The pan­demic had brought work to a stand­still for her and 15 other Bi­hari work­ers — no wages, lit­tle food, and no cook­ing gas. An eco­nomic pack­age has since been laid out. Yet, labour dis­tress con­tin­ues.

Why did the mi­grant work­ers make the pun­ish­ing jour­ney from big cities back to the non­de­script towns and vil­lages of largely Bi­har, and in Ut­tar Pradesh (UP)? The fol­low­ing nar­ra­tives from Poor­van­chal (eastern UP and Bi­har) prove the need for a nu­anced un­der­stand­ing of the pre­car­ity and anx­i­eties of the mi­grant work­force and the need for State poli­cies that take this into ac­count. The two states ac­count for 37% of the coun­try’s in­ter-state mi­grants whose lives and liveli­hoods are now uncer­tain, at least for the near fu­ture. We spoke to dozens of work­ers and com­mu­nity lead­ers to un­der­stand their anx­i­eties and ex­pe­ri­ences and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to un­der­stand their re­sponses.

Mi­grant work­ers across the coun­try had sim­i­lar wor­ries. The ab­sence of ba­sic ameni­ties, the in­abil­ity to feed their chil­dren with­out ra­tion cards of the par­tic­u­lar ge­og­ra­phy they were locked down in, and the lack of a se­cu­rity net to pro­tect them­selves from Covid-19 made them desperate. Worse still, the per­sis­tent fear of evic­tion played on their minds through the day, while mosquitoes bit them through the night. There was no spare money to pur­chase soaps, sani­tis­ers, or the most es­sen­tial prod­uct of the times — masks. Their eco­nomic in­se­cu­ri­ties per­sist de­spite govern­ment ac­tion in re­cent weeks.

Take some ex­am­ples from Si­ta­marhi and Mad­hubani, Bi­har. Ra­jesh worked at a con­struc­tion site; Ra­jk­ishore Ram, Fenkan Raut, Manoj Man­jhi, and Roshan Ram were labour­ers in a shoe fac­tory, and Sub­hash Sah was a fab­ri­ca­tor in an­other fac­tory. None of them re­ceived their wages. The sit­u­a­tion was worse for sea­sonal mi­grants who os­cil­lated between their home and the des­ti­na­tion states. Amar Singh, an agri­cul­tural worker in Go­rakh­pur, who dou­bles up as a painter in Delhi, trav­elled 900 kilo­me­tres on a mo­tor­cy­cle, only for his vil­lage to chase him away. Those ar­riv­ing from the city were re­ported to the po­lice and the prad­han, the vil­lage chief.

In Ri­wil­ganj, Bi­har, the quar­an­tine cen­tre in the Si­mariya School pro­vided respite to those who had re­turned. Food was pro­vided thrice a day. A mos­quito net, a towel, and bathing items were also given. But it was life be­yond the quar­an­tine that wor­ried them — for no one knew where they would find work.

Their fears are for the im­me­di­ate and longterm. Es­ti­mates of un­em­ploy­ment from the Cen­tre for Mon­i­tor­ing the In­dian Econ­omy ex­hibit a dire sit­u­a­tion. Bi­har has had one of the high­est rates of un­em­ploy­ment in March and April. While the av­er­age un­em­ploy­ment rate for the coun­try was 23.5% in April, Bi­har’s un­em­ploy­ment fig­ure was as high as 46.6%. Ut­tar Pradesh is rel­a­tively bet­ter, with 21.5% un­em­ploy­ment rate in April.

Many of these work­ers es­caped the serf­dom in vil­lages and flocked to cities only to be forced to restart work in vil­lages, in farms and brick kilns, now that the pan­demic rages on. The Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Scheme (MGNREGS) is now the bul­wark for ru­ral em­ploy­ment. In April, nearly 856,773 house­holds de­manded em­ploy­ment in Bi­har. Of this, only 73% of house­holds could get work. Of the 1,113,644 house­holds in UP that de­manded work through MGNREGS in April, only 67% were given work. With hun­dreds of thou­sands likely to be added to the work­force in Bi­har and Ut­tar Pradesh, the de­mand for MGNREGS is ex­pected to see a sharp rise. Gen­er­at­ing work and en­sur­ing reg­u­lar pay­ments will be a chal­lenge. Bi­har has a built-in dis­ad­van­tage due to ex­ten­sive land­less­ness — 80% of ru­ral mi­grants are ei­ther land­less or have less than one acre of land.

Yet, de­spite pre­car­i­ous work in cities, no se­cure wages, and lit­tle so­cial sup­port, In­dia’s poor­est work­ers have acted with re­straint, still fol­low­ing, within their con­straints, norms of so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

Pan­demics may have his­tor­i­cally of­fered op­por­tu­ni­ties for labour to bar­gain for higher wages and bet­ter con­di­tions. In In­dia, the pres­sures from ma­liks (bosses), the per­va­sive in­for­mal­ism of new econ­omy jobs that lead to no recog­ni­tion for labour, and the ur­ban mid­dle-class’s as­ser­tions for ex­clu­sion of the ur­ban poor are part of a larger prob­lem. Op­por­tu­ni­ties are dif­fi­cult in con­di­tions of in­equal­i­ties and as­ser­tions of power. In­dia must do bet­ter, start­ing with in­clu­sive ur­ban­ism and pol­icy re­forms premised on an ethic of labour care. Man­isha Priyam is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, NIEPA, and Mridus­mita Bor­doloi is se­nior re­searcher, Ac­count­abil­ity Ini­tia­tive, Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search The views ex­pressed are per­sonal


Many work­ers es­caped the serf­dom in vil­lages and flocked to cities only to be forced to restart work in vil­lages now



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