Opinion: The ‘Invisible’ Working Hands

By Jayanta Bhattacharya

Vijay Yadav was from Patna, Bihar, and Sufian Momin was from Maldah, West Bengal. They became friends while working at a multi-story-building construction site in Mumbai. On Monday (April 13) evening, Momin gets a call from Vijay; later, other laborers from Maldah who were staying in Bandra east also receive similar phone-calls.

Calls were also received by labourers from other states with a message for them to assemble at the bus stop near Bandra railway station on Tuesday afternoon with a demand: “either arrange our food, or arrange our return home”. Thus, the migrants from Maldah joined workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, others, at the said bus stop in Mumbai.

The invisibles. Photo by Gopal Dutt Sharma

The labourers later said that instead of either proving food or a passage home, police dispersed them with baton charge. Some were injured by the caning; but scared of being nabbed by the police, most preferred to suffer quietly at the shanties that are their temporary home rather than get medical attention in a hospital.

Among those injured were several residents from Maldah. But they did not want to be named for fear of the police. Also, if the family comes to know, they will worry! The lockdown has been extended till May 3. Since they are daily-wagers, many of them are now are now penniless after being out of job in the previous three weeks of isolation.  (The beginning, till this part was based on a report published on https://www.anandabazar.com/ titled খাবার নেই, লাঠির যন্ত্রণা লুকিয়েছেন পুলিশের ভয়ে )

Though the suppression wasn’t as severe, reverse migration in huge numbers were also witnessed earlier in Delhi, then also in Surat (Gujarat), Kottayam (Kerala), and other places.

But the lockdown had to happen. The pandemic couldn’t have been otherwise contained. The only way of arresting the spread of the Coronavirus was through isolation. But due to lack of proper plan at ground level, the poor, especially the migrant workers, the daily wage earners, were affected. 

Migration. Photo by Gopal Dutt Sharma

Unfortunately, the exodus – widely reported in the media – is being seen and handled as a law-and-order problem only. It is more humanitarian, more psychological for the police force to handle alone. Perhaps the respective local self government, which is such a strong component in our set-up, could have been more responsible and active. As reported, taking a lesson from the Surat unrest, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation reached out to NGOs to provide food for the migrant labourers and others. 

According to an IndiaSpend report, India is estimated to have some 120 million rural-to-urban migrant workers. Nearly 92% of the 61 million jobs created over the 22 years post liberalisation in 1991 have been informal. Moreover, joblessness has risen sharply in recent years. Also, internal migrant labourers contribute to nearly 10% of India’s GDP . But internal migration remains neglected as a policy issue. This, despite the fact that they a city runs almost on their shoulders.

In “Labour Rights and Labour Standards for Migrant Labour in India”, Dr. W.N. SALVE noted: “The process of theorization of migration began in the 19th century. It has been discussed by many researchers, who have emphasized social and cultural, distant and economic factors as causes of migration. Migration of labour started in India during the period of British colonial rule. It was aimed at meeting the requirements of capitalist’s development both in India and abroad. The labour was moved from the hinterland to the sites of mining, plantation and manufaftories. It was recruited from the rural areas and regulated in such a manner that women and children remained in the villages while males migrated to the modern sector.” (www.oit.org)

Apart from industrialization, desperate migration also happens due to droughts, over-production of crop, etc. Sometimes, the same workers happen to be working on the fields and at other times, at construction sites – agriculture being a seasonal occupation.

It is estimated that there are about 40 million seasonal migrant labourers – mainly from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, etc. – who contribute in the farming sector of several states in India. 

On March 28, migrant workers, including women, with their children and belongings, were “standing in a long queue of about 3 km” at Anand Vihar bus terminus (in east Delhi) to board the first possible vehicle back to their respective villages in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh.

Two days earlier, P. Sainath (Founder Editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India), wrote in The Wire: “Lockdowns of the kind we are into – with no serious social support or planning for the vulnerable –can lead, perhaps already have led, to reverse migrations. It is impossible to get a fix on the extent or intensity of those. But reports from several states suggest that large numbers of people are heading back towards their villages as the cities and towns they work in, lockdown.

Many are using the only transportation now available – their own feet. Some are cycling home. Several find themselves stranded midway when trains, buses and vans stop functioning. It’s scary, the kind of hell that might break loose if this intensifies.”

The migrant labourers are poor – living on, and sending home from what they earn on a daily basis – and neglected, since they are not part of anyone’s “vote bank” as non-domiciles. And they neither have the protection of social welfare scheme, nor healthcare, nor access to public distribution system. They are the invisible faces with active hands. 

According to IndiaSpend: “A new report released on April 15, 2020, and based on a survey of more than 11,000 workers by Stranded Workers Action Network, a volunteer group, said that about 50% only had rations left for less than one person, 74% had less than Rs 300 left, and 89% had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. Most of them were daily wage factory/construction workers. The group was formed to attend to distress calls from migrant workers after the lockdown. “

The Union finance minister’s package did help, 5 kg of free rice for each person in addition to the five already given under PDS, as did the ex-gratia payment of Rs 500 credited to women Jan Dhan account holders for the next three months, starting from April.

But a lot more is the requirement of the times. The current location of the erstwhile workforce needs to be identified. The distribution of the migrants can be guesstimated to be at four places. One, those who continue to stay at their temporary second-home – or near work-place; two, those who have reached their families; three, those housed in shelters; and four, those who are unaccounted yet, or “lost”. In the absence of any hard records, it will be a long haul to trace and track them.  They still remain the faceless, now their hands are also inactive.

To read more from the Author, visit his personal blog Jay Bee Says

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