Powerless away, powerless at home

R. Srinivasan | | Updated on: Jun 24, 2020

Left in limbo: The lack of job stability means migrant workers are disenfranchised at both home and guest States | Photo Credit: Danish Siddiqui

Without a political voice, migrant workers will always fall through the cracks

What would be your reaction if you happened to read the following:

“The Department of Labour and ESI has already constituted the State Coordination Cell for Migrant Workers at the office of Labour Commissioner, Odisha and the District Level Facilitation Cells at the district level in the state to track distressed seasonal migrant workers.

“Eleven Migration Prone districts have been identified namely Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Sonepur, Bargarh, Koraput, Gajapati, Malkangiri, Ganjam, Rayagada and Nowrangpur for concerted action.

“In order to track the movement of migrant workers along with information on their employers/contractors/agents, etc., Data Collection formats were circulated to the District Labour Officers (DLOs) … to capture data at the Gram Panchayat level. The data has been shared with the Dept. of Labour, Andhra Pradesh for necessary action as per the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between GoI (MoLE) and State Labour Department of Governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

“Discussion with ILO, New Delhi has already been held to develop a Tracking Software to track the Migrant Workers online who migrate to Andhra Pradesh every year to work in the Brick Kiln sectors.

“The concern for hygienic living for the migrant workers of Odisha at Andhra Pradesh has been taken care of by taking initiative to build semi pucca houses for them. The Govt. of Andhra Pradesh has agreed to ensure the same and the expenditure for this shall be borne equally by the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

“Awareness activities are in progress for the Migrant Workers to use portable smart cards under Rastriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) Scheme which will insure their health in the destination states.”

There is more, but you get the picture. Your reaction, like mine was when I first chanced upon this document in the website of the Directorate of Labour of the Government of Odisha, probably would probably be: “Fantastic! Finally, the kind of coordinated, tripartite (Centre, home State, guest State) approach which is required to find a holistic solution to the issue of internal migrant labour.”

Only on paper

Some of the solutions listed — identifying migration-prone districts in the home State to create a database of potential migrants, a smart card to track movement online, portability of Central and State welfare schemes, a joint agreement between home and guest States to provide hygienic housing, access to healthcare and access to home State language teachers and books in schools in the guest State etc — will address many of the key challenges faced by migrant workers. “Finally,” you may have thought – as I did – “a sensible approach to the migrant crisis.”

I continued to be enveloped in this warm cloud of appreciation till I happened to notice the date when the page I was looking at had been updated — 2012! All this had been put in motion more than a decade ago, and the Odisha government had even signed an MoU with the government of the erstwhile undivided Andhra Pradesh, and the Centre had even set up an inter-State co-ordination committee to “create a sustainable institutional mechanism to look into the issues of inter-state migration across India” as far back as July 6, 2012!

So what happened to this inter-State coordination level committee? What happened to the project with the ILO to develop a database of migrants and do ‘smart’ tracking of labour movements? What happened to the provision of ‘semi-pucca housing’ in the guest State? What happened to portability of welfare schemes?

Political importance

Nothing, clearly, which is why we witnessed the human seas of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the scorching Indian summer to reach the, as it turns out, dubious protection of “home”.

It is astonishing that a problem which had been so clearly identified and for which the correct (and workable) solutions had been worked out, and something which governments at both the State and Central levels were aware of for years, has simply gone unaddressed all this time. How could this have happened, you may wonder. If they knew the problems and had the solution, why wouldn’t they have simply executed it and avoided all that misery and unnecessary death?

The reason for such sustained political and bureaucratic apathy, as always in India, is just one thing — lack of a political voice. India’s migrant labour is effectively disenfranchised both home and away. They may have their vote in the home State but are unable to travel and exercise their franchise — and therefore, don’t count in the eyes of the political class. Likewise, in places of work, given the lack of permanency, the floating nature of their occupations and their numerical dispersal, not to speak of the horrendous difficulties of actually getting any official record changed when you are poor and at the bottom of the pyramid, means that you simply end up getting disenfranchised.

Whatever one may say of our system of democracy, the fact is that once a particular set of voters becomes numerically large enough and geographically concentrated enough to matter at the polls, India’s creaky machinery for delivering welfare and services gets going and some benefits — even if they trickle through and are intermittent — do get through to the intended beneficiary.

This is why we have managed to lift quite a number out of poverty, why the the sub-human conditions in our urban slums have improved over time, and why there has been ‘development’ even in our poorest areas.

But if you are migrant and disenfranchised, you miss out on even this. If we want to really solve the migrant worker’s problems — and clearly, we have both the solutions and the tools — then we must start by making the migrant voice count politically.

Under scrutiny

With the Covid-19 pandemic showing every sign of getting out of control in most States, the murmurs are once again getting louder about migrant workers. This time around, though, the mutters are getting louder in their “home” States – the places they returned to for refuge, at immense risk and after undergoing astonishing hardships and economic ruin.

As the case load mounts in the hinterland, the returning migrants are now being blamed for having brought back the disease with them. Even if they somehow manage to run the bureaucratic gauntlet and reach ‘home’, it has been to an unpleasant welcome, with many village panchayats imposing their own versions of isolation and social distancing, which has often meant that even the minimum support they were banking on — employment under the MGNREGA, for instance — has proved inaccessible in practice.

Published on June 24, 2020
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