May Day Musings on Migrants under Lockdown
The present policy of ‘lockdown without preparation’ generates a suspicion about the intent of the ruling class. Even as the question why, in the first place, the lockdown was announced without an iota of preparation, remains to be answered, the delay of one full month to come up with any substantial relief to the migrant workers, raises a new range of questions.
On May Day, thousands of people in Maharashtra are fasting from sunrise to sunset in solidarity with the millions of hungry workers and their family members. May 1 is also the foundation day of the state of Maharashtra. Apart from expressing solidarity with the working population, the people on fast are demanding of the state that it accords the highest priority in addressing the grave condition of hundreds of thousands of workers stranded in the cities and those rendered unemployed in various cities, towns and villages. The families of the workers are barely managing to survive with assistance from civil society organizations in urban areas. Thousands of intra-state migrant workers and those who ere working just across the state borders walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their villages. While volunteers from several towns and villages across the state fed these workers during their homeward journey, many of these workers’ families are starving after reaching their homes in their villages. With no respite in sight and the onset of summer, we are moving towards a critical juncture where the lives of millions of the poor are at stake.
Baba Adhav, a legendary leader of the working class from Pune, has demanded food grains for everyone who has a ration card and even those without the card who are willing to stand in the line to collect the ration. This is the least, and the least difficult, that the government can do. This measure will also ease the demand for transportation of inter-state workers, as some of them might prefer to stay back if they are assured food security. However, providing food grains alone is not sufficient for survival, particularly for the migrant workers who do not possess the ration card of the state where they work. Even with the Aadhar and ration cards of their domicile state, the migrant workers are denied most benefits at their places of work. In most of the states, they are denied basic entitlements - from access to primary health centres to LPG connection. The ever-demanding landlords make their situation worse. This is why hundreds of workers in Surat took to the streets as many as three times in a month-long lockdown and workers assembled in big numbers at the railway station in Mumbai defying the restrictions.
The stories of the workers’ plight, struggle, determination, successes and misfortunes are aplenty. They need to be chronicled, told and re-told, to make a lasting impact on the public memory of the country. The news, in the early days of the lockdown, of 300 workers stashed in a lorry hoping it will take them home is just the tip of the iceberg. They were caught and so the world took note of it. There must be hundreds of such lorries transporting the workers in the most inhuman and risky conditions. There was news of migrant pregnant women delivering babies mid-way as fear and desperation forced them to risk a hazardous journey home to stay alive. The news of a 12-year young girl breathing her last just a few kilometres short of her home and the death of a 35-year old man just after he made it home after walking several hours and kilometres make us hang our head in shame. For the first time, the lockdown has made this invisible population emerge to the surface and make its presence felt, but in such a tragic manner. Inter-state migration is a much bigger phenomenon than the rise of the middle class or such other fancy themes that everybody loves to discuss. The migrant workers are at the core of the urbanization process in India. They are the builders of urban India; however, they hardly count in the urban planning of municipalities, state governments and the central government. Rather, they are viewed as a burden on the cities and, in many instances, considered as communities spreading diseases and criminality in the places hosting them.
Policymakers have generally paid scant attention to the phenomenon of inter-state migration in India. An exception was in 1979 when the fragile Janata government at the centre enacted the Inter-State Migrant Workers’ Act. However, the act was neither seriously implemented nor ever amended to take into account the changing contexts. In the decade of 1970s and 80s, inter-state migration was mostly for agricultural purposes and was controlled by the contractors. This has not changed post the 1990s; however, a new wave of migration into urban construction, urban services and into the export-led industries had begun. This migration was essential for the post-1991 economic growth. To sustain this growth, what became necessary was the consistent economic despondency of these migrant workers. Without a lack of opportunities in the field of agriculture, the flow of migrant workers from the rural to the urban centres would be neither consistent nor sufficient! Hence, neglect of agriculture becomes a deliberate policy, with definite results.
On the other hand, opportunities for employment in the urban centres should always be available to the migrant workers without great prospects of financial stability or upward mobility. Tweaking the labour laws and the creeping bias in the mindset of labour courts in favour of the employers are sufficient tools to keep the workers always on their toes. It is being deemed necessary labour reform to attract more foreign direct investment. As India eyes a whopping catch of FDI fleeing China in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, talk of more labour reforms is already doing the rounds. The government would also find it easier to push through so-called reforms taking advantage of the economic recession in the wake of the lockdown. It is a proven fact across the world that workers love their employment more than anything else, particularly more than any type of lockdown. Therefore, the present policy of ‘lockdown without preparation’ generates a suspicion about the intent of the ruling class. Even as the question why, in the first place, the lockdown was announced without an iota of preparation, remains to be answered, the delay of one full month to come up with any substantial relief to the migrant workers, raises a new range of questions. The questions are not about the ability of the rulers, but about their intent. The questions are less about the effectiveness of lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and more about the ultimate objective of the lockdown. Today, these questions are resonating in the air as thousands of citizens, activists and trade unionists in Maharashtra join the cause of workers in the state as well as in the country and across the world.