Appalling apathy towards migrant workers

Subir Roy | Updated on April 02, 2020 Published on April 02, 2020

Concerns of the middle-class are addressed with alacrity. But leaders seem to lack foresight when it comes to migrant labour issues

Well over a week ago, on Tuesday March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a lockdown of the whole country. This made a torrent out of a trickle which had already started — migrant workers from States as far off as Kerala and Maharashtra seeking to get back to their homes in the eastern states as, bereft of money, food and often living space, they could not survive any more.

The very next day, Prashant Kishor, ally-turned-foe of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, accused his government of not helping and offering some immediate relief to the “hundreds of poor people of Bihar in Delhi and other places” who are “locked down, trapped”. Five days later, on Monday, March 30, a a report from Patna in the Indian Express noted that in the five days between the janata curfew of March 19 and the lockdown of March 24, Kumar had conducted at least four high-level meetings, in which matters like free ration and additional pension were addressed, but there was barely any mention of plans to deal with migrant workers from Bihar seeking to return home.

In between, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, seeing the huge numbers of migrant workers massed on his side of the border with Delhi, announced that 1,000 buses would take them home. Kumar thereafter pulled him up, as taking large numbers of workers across States would heavily compromise the lockdown.

Overlooked community

As the migrant workers’ issue has blown up and tens of thousands of them have massed in Delhi, the Union Home Ministry has moved against several senior officials in Delhi and the UP CM has sought to move against the head of the administration of a district bordering Delhi for mishandling the whole matter.

In two addresses over the last week since the lockdown was announced (the first was the announcement of the lockdown itself and the second was during Mann Ki Baat) the Prime Minister dwelt on the whole lockdown issue. In the former he said: “Forget going out of home... (This is) certainly a very difficult time for the poor... several people are collaborating their efforts to help the poor”. In the latter, he extended his “heartfelt apology... especially to them (underprivileged brothers and sisters)”. He said they “may be annoyed... for their confinement in their homes”. In neither of these was the plight of migrant workers, trudging sometimes hundreds of kilometres across the length and breadth of the country to get to home, mentioned.

The truth is, the leaders of the country are focussed on the middle-class, and the latter is best able to get a decent deal for themselves. Sections of the poor are organised along different lines, like small farmers, but India’s migrant labour is neither organised nor does it have a leadership to speak for it, and has simply been overlooked by the country’s middle class and its leaders.

But this is a pity, as migrant labour is an important economic force and is constantly creating value. Those who have come forward the most to identify and work for it are from the microfinance sector, which declares its key task as helping economically active poor women raise incomes.

The hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers, who have in the last few days been dominating our visual media, are hardy young people (some with their families) who have walked a hundred kilometres or more to try and get back home instead of staying put and starving at their place of work where their jobs, wages, and in many cases homes, were gone. These are the hard-working young people who should be valued and cherished instead of being monumentally overlooked until they start trudging back home the way India’s poor used to move during a famine or flood before the Second World War of the last century.

Catering to middle class

How the concerns of the middle-class are noted with alacrity by leaders stretching across the political spectrum is indicated by what is happening in West Bengal. Its proactive Chief Minister had taken a lead in declaring a lockdown and personally being at the forefront in markets and hospitals drawing attention to the discipline that has to be followed.

But two recent decisions of the State offer a clue. How can the Bengali do without his fish for long? A State agency, already known to sell quality fish from its mobile shops in city markets, is now doing the job with renewed vigour, presumably because fish is an essential commodity kept outside of the purview of the lockdown. But what has really raised eyebrows is the decision to allow sweet shops to open for four hours a day. Sweets, an essential commodity?

Officially, the government was responding to pleas of the businesses and their workers (particularly what do you do with the milk as cows can’t be asked to suddenly stop lactating) but more importantly, no political party worth its salt in West Bengal will have any doubts as to what is the surest way to the heart of the Bengali middle-class — the one that is paved with rasogollas and the such.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on April 02, 2020

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