Who would not like to work and earn a living close to home? Who would not want to work at a location so that he/she could come back to the family at the end of the day and enjoy the familiar atmosphere? Which person would prefer to live in a distant place for the livelihood away from his beloved ones? Which individual in order to keep his family alive would opt for a life in which he can meet his family once a year, or not even that?
These are questions that we the fortunate rich and so-called educated do not have to face or answer. We can live in a cocoon of comfort that money can buy and thus avoid the unpleasant questions enumerated above. We live close by to the place of work and have the luxury of coming back to the familiar surroundings of our loved ones.
The word ‘Migrant’ itself denotes a derogatory feeling towards them as if these are homeless people who need not be counted in the false development statistics we are fond of highlighting. They are constantly reminding us about society’s injustice to them and we feel that if they kept quiet and go on doing the hard lower grade work allotted to them we would not feel guilty and ashamed about such neglected section of our population.
People go to other States or other Districts in search of work because the native State or District has not offered an opportunity for their livelihood. They have to leave their family behind in God’s hands and venture out to faraway lands so that they can eke out a living. They have to learn to bear abuse, torture, hunger and working illegal for long hours and be at the mercy of the employer who on the slightest pretext can throw them out to die. Such is the reality in modern India whose lop-sided GDP growth becomes our barometer of progress and forces us to hanker after world leadership, ignoring the gaping inequality within.
What is the scale of such Migrant population in this country? According to Professor Ravi Srivastava, honorary director, Centre of Employment Studies at the Institute of Human Development, “it is estimated that there were around 120 to 140 million migrant workers in the country, including the nearly 60 million seasonal short-term migrants not counted by enumerators.
These seasonal short term migrants have a weak foothold in urban space and in their native places since they have least physical endowment, educational resources and social background. They enter into unwritten contracts with labour contractors and take money in advance, adding to their vulnerability. They are isolated too from local people (in areas) where they work and are discriminated (against)”.
The flow of Migrants takes place from the Eastern States to the Western, Northern and Southern States because States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa provide very little opportunity to this class of rural population to earn their livelihood in their respective States. These Migrants also do not figure in the unemployment statistics released periodically by their respective native States. It is as if they do not exist in the States where their family has been living for generations. They are not considered true Citizens of this country for whom no development planning needs to be done.
This is the reason that when Lockdown was thrust upon this country suddenly on 24th March 2020 without any pre-warning, there was no thought or consideration given or planned for the movement of this Migrant population from their place of work to their native locations back to their families living far away. They were left to God’s mercy or their ingenuity to fend for themselves and not bother us with their problems of money, hunger, Covid Virus attack and anxiety about the fate of their loved ones far away in their native places.
Can you imagine how you would feel if you are working in a distant far-away town and suddenly the Government of the day announces that people should stay wherever they are and not make any movement? You are told to make your arrangements for survival in that alien town and wait for the next announcement which will come maybe in a fortnight or more. You have little money, the landlord where you are staying is pestering you for due rent, the place you have been working has frozen your wages and at night you keep wondering how your family back home is surviving. There was no one in the Government to think about and answer these questions – such was the hard heartedness of the bureaucracy and the political establishment. And why not? These Migrants were not our citizens.
The second and the third Lockdown in quick succession hit the Migrants with a heavy life-extinguishing hammer. This was the last straw and we can only thank the patience of the Migrants that they did not riot or went on a killing spree. Finally the Government decided to allow the Migrants to go home in batches in the special trains that were scheduled. However instead of giving money to the Migrants to spend when they reached their far destinations, the insensitive Government asked them for the rail fares to travel in the train. This was like rubbing salt in their wounds but no surprise since the Government wanted that. After all these Migrants were not citizens.
We are now learning that some States like Karnataka are not interested in sending Migrants back to their native States since they are needed in Karnataka to run their factories which are opening. This is nothing short of bonded labour and must be condemned. Where was Karnataka and the factory owners when these workers were starving and dying during the Lockdown period? Similar is the case being reported from Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana whose factories and farms depend on these unfortunate Migrants. Worse is Bihar whose Chief Minister does not want any Bihari immigrant back in Bihar for fear of Covid Virus spreading. It seems that the best medicine for combating Corona Virus seems to be to kill all the poor people by exposing them to this disease while we sit in our comfortable homes surrounded by our wealth and family. The Migrant is an eye-sore which we have to get rid of not realizing that their very existence keeps the engines of economy going.
As Telegraph journalist Mr. Sankarshan Thakur has so eloquently written about these Migrants : ‘They are the engines of our lives, underpaid, overworked engines. They work our factories and sheds, they put the shine on our diamonds and they sweep our drains, they keep our homes in order, they put the cooking on our tables, they clean our cars, they run our lifts, they drive our cars and cabs, they are the oil that lubricates the turning of our days.”
Migrants are therefore the true citizens of this country and the whole country has betrayed their trust in us and in this nation.