‘Lawaris’ or let’s just admit it, Children of a Lesser God

The heart-breaking images of large numbers of Indians, on foot, walking back to their homes hundreds and thousands of kilometres away, sometimes dying midway, brings tears to the eyes and reminds me of the iconic movie “Do Bigha zameen”. The tragic last scene in the movie is where the protagonist played by Balraj Sahni dies pulling a rikshaw. This brings us back to the question, does the government care?


The term ‘migrant labourers’ or ‘migrant workers’ is a misnomer. Everyone is a migrant in their own nation at some time or the other. The reasons for this migration may be the quest for better education, better job opportunities, greener pastures, better quality of life that makes the people migrate.  Th difference lies in the access to opportunities and fair wages. Migrant labourers or migrant workers term describes that section of our people who are not just a cog in the economic wheel of a society or nation, but men and women, Indians, who are not just the toiling masses of this nation but those who most seminally contribute to the growth and productivity of the economy. Rural India (Bharat) which is the backbone of this nation is fleeing from Urban and swanky India. Should we stop calling them migrants for the reasons referred to below?mentioned in this article.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great leveller as we near the seventy third year of our independence in 2020. It took a pandemic for Urban India toto to the lives of migrant labout Indians, so far unseen and unheard of even with respect  aspect of the country’s economy. These are the faceless and nameless Indians on whom we depend for our basic daily activities in the cities. They are not fleeing the pandemic; they are fleeing us. They took one long, clear, searing look at us – identified us as the industrial strength ingratiates that we are – and they packed their bags and left. It was not the bug, it was not being denied wages, it was not the heat, it was not the filth in Swacch Bharat, it was not even the slumlord’s overnight eviction. They just realized who we were – people who saw other humans as essentially a replaceable means to an end – and they decided to replace us. And none of us – a nova middle-class, greedy, selfish, impatient, thirsting for success by hook or crook, intolerant, lack of empathy, carbon foot print counting, urban constituency of mid-of-career hash taggers – imagined that our employees would left swipe us. But yes, that’s exactly what happened.


Migrant Workers or Guest Workers?

So where do we start? We stop calling them migrant labourers or migrant workers. They live and work here, in all the metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad. This is their home, although they might – like a lot of us – have birth homes, too. The phrase ‘migrant worker’ is consciously disempowering. Migrant is reinforced in media discourse to divest something vital: an assertion of residency in the same city as ourselves.

Does it scare us to think that they might inhabit the same public space as us? By repeatedly calling them migrants we also suggest that we can simply ‘pack them back to where they came from’. A reinforcement of the word migrant diminishes their agency as citizens; its invisibles them by equating them with wandering beings (as if a pack of sheep) and it detracts from their more powerful role as citizen, by insinuating that they are essentially homeless and therefore entirely reliant on the host state for residence. In essence, an elite existentialist’s reprehensible rap set: they are not from here/they are here to clean/ and cook/ and cook/ and clean/, press clothes, where do they go from here, who ’knows?  

Every time we think – Thank the almighty that we have a roof on our heads, a own home, secure job, afford two square meals a day in this pandemic – we acknowledge all those who had originally left their own home, travelled hundreds of kilometres, shacked up under plastic roof shanties for months, without a kitchen or indoor plumbing, to build that house you now call home. Those Indians walking on the streets, hungry, dispossessed, broken, betrayed by the government they voted into power with brute majority hoodwinked and brainwashed by the ruling dispensation, betrayed by the people whose businesses they established – they’re the folks who made the place sheltering you during this storm of storms. They are not migrant workers: they are the original founders of your home. No one out of choice, or from lack of judgment, sleeps on train tracks. Tracks suggest a path to your village, serving as compass for those without the privilege of GPS. P. Sainath of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), an authority on rural development and a Ramon Magsaysay award winner had rightly pointed out that the Urban India did not care about these labourers/workers till March 26, 2020 and cares now as it has lost their services and needs them.


Death on the Tracks

And what happens when people die on tracks? From a Quora thread: ‘With a high-speed hit all you get is lots of blood spray, chunks of flesh, organ and bone with the odd recognizable chunk thrown in.’ Now imagine, for a moment, their funereal. When the rich come back from London or Rome, bringing home some of the contamination, we don’t ask – Who told you to go to Europe and fall sick? So on what account do we ask the poor: Why were you sleeping on train tracks? We are not equating the two questions but are asserting the right to question an establishment that believes it is wrong for us to prioritise one question over the other. And, for the record, the correct answer to the question is: They would never have been sleeping on train tracks if they were, instead, in the trains and on their way home to their villages. 

The workers in Bangalore were held back (restrained, shackled, forbidden ‘free’ passage). Their trains were cancelled after the capitalist builder lobby realized that if these labours or the toiling masses vanished, so would be their projects. Much like slaves – or in keeping in with our indigenous traditions of bonded labour – Indian citizens were not allowed to travel home. The nexus between capitalists and governments is devious enough to hold you in captivity. Like a caged animal.   After protests, the Karnataka Government relented. But the recommencement of the Indian economy never factored for an unsettling absence of labour; after all, they assumed: where the hell would these Indians go? As it turns, they would go any place where people did not treat them like vermin, as disposable, as replaceable, and where they endured a need-based visibility, which is to say: when we need them, we see them, sell them lofty, swanky dreams. But now that the laborers left, the mazdoors have left us in a state of majboori: no one here to lay a brick, no one to cook the food, no one to look after the plants, no one to clean the luxury cars, no one to wash and press clothes, no one to give a haircut and shave and without a maid, who is cleaning the utensils, sweeping and mopping our homes, cleaning the toilet?

The lockdown announced on the March 24, 2020 without giving sufficient notice has put these workers into a fix. In a nation of a 130 crore population of diverse regions, the time given (or rather dictated) was just too short, only four hours. To put things in proper perspective there are approximately 45 crores or 450 million migrant workers working in different parts of India. They never knew how long would this lockdown continue as there were no specific strategy from the Government to tackle the pandemic and the human issues related that could have far reaching consequences. Although the Government said that their wages would have to be paid for this duration, owners were not to force them to pay rentals, the corporate honchos whose prime motive is profit while human welfare is secondary did not agree with the views of the Government. Result was that the restlessness in these workers which saw a mass exodus that had the social distancing going for a toss. Many started walking with their belongings staring at a bleak future and no guarantee of returning. Had the present dispensation displayed an iota of sensibility and apathy, a week could have been given, special trains could have run and these workers could have been paid their salaries and they could have managed to reach their hometown and spend the lockdown peacefully at their home town with their near and dear ones. This could have given a window for them to return after the lockdown is lifted. Now with the chaos all around, their return seems to be a remote possibility.

There has also been confusion about the railways handling the travel arrangements of these workers. This confusion has arisen because of an absence of political clarity, commitment and dithering from an otherwise authoritarian government! The Central government clearly did not want to foot the bill, the expenses for the travel of these Indians, back home! Some of the workers had to sell their phones for purchasing the train ticket, making the physical distancing norms and Arogya Sethu application a mockery as many did not have phones let alone have smart phones. The trains also had special Rajdhani trains having premium fares which were out of reach for the poor. This led to a steady growth in the number of stranded workers waiting outside the major railway stations without a ticket as the ticket had to be purchased on the IRCTC portal which could not withstand the digital traffic of transactions and crashed adding to the chaos. After walking long distances to reach the railway station from within and outside the various cities, only to realise hunger had over taken them, ticket available only on the web portal and  long distances from within and outside the city, only to be told they can only buy a ticket on the IRCTC web portal with the fares being high and not affordable by the poor masses. In case the PMCares funds is not meant to help poor workers, labourers and families on railway tracks and road, then what is the purpose of such a fund? The trains are far and few given the huge number of labourers and workers outside their respective home States. The capitalists are worried about their production, profits, services and are treating labourers like commodities. Agreed, the capitalists need the workers to restart the production and manufacturing to kick start the economy, but this cannot be the reason to violate the most fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution-right to life and livelihood. It was only after the Congress party sprang a surprise that they would foot the travel of these workers caught the Central Government on the wrong foot and with no clear strategy in mind, it was chaos all around.

Many deaths have taken place owing to accidents on railway tracks, highways and also starvation. They have been run over by cars or killed when overloaded vehicles tipped over. The most noted one was the death of sixteen labourers sleeping on the tracks in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district.  By ignoring the workers who are still taking to highway to walk in this hot summer towards their home towns, the Central Government is perpetuating its disastrous error that is assuming Himalayan proportions. If they walk continuously for long duration, they can suffer from dehydration, hunger, heat stroke etc in the extreme hot conditions. On March 31, 2020 the Centre informed the Supreme Court that there were no migrant labourers on the roads given the measures State governments had adopted to house and feed them in various States. This submission was made after petitions were moved asking the Centre to act to avert a humanitarian crisis as the workers/labourers began walking hundreds of kilometres to get back to their native towns and villages from far flung locations. Obviously, this was not even a factually correct statement. Even. Lots of voluntary organisations belonging to various communities organised common kitchens to prepare food from donations in kind and distributed it to them following the guidelines prescribed by the authorities, even though helping hand of government was nowhere to be seen.

There can be no doubt over the fact that this labourers’ crisis is the result of government apathy. The Centre has not found it necessary to establish a task force to help these toiling masses reach their homes ever since the sudden enforcement of the nationwide lockdown. But the same Central Government has shown alacrity in helping the more prosperous stranded Indians in other countries due to the global COVID-19 situation under the massive Vande Bharat mission. Even it was not free. Countries like Qatar who were mis-lead into believing it as a relief mission offered many concessions to Air India, but when it found that it was a paid trip, withdrew the concessions.

There has also been law and order problem in various States. There have been sporadic protests by these labourers in cities such as Surat and some other cities but the scale of these protests is nothing compared to the magnitude of the crisis. The fear that they may end up in the wrong side of the law has made them endure the unimaginable hardship silently. No money to buy the essentials, no food, no potable drinking water, starvation, hunger still they walked long distances with not more than biscuits and a small bottle of water having only a solitary meal in a day. Some have fallen sick or died owing to fatigue, accidents which underscored the extreme risks they have been exposed to under measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

UP, Gujarat and MP follow Centre’s footsteps

Many State Governments particularly the ruling dispensation of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh passed an ordinance that effectively suspended various labour laws in force in the States to boost investment and increasing the number of working hours without overtime wages for the extra hours put in by them. UP alone suspended thirty five out of thirty-eight labour laws. It is not what digital media claims as Golden India. The Gujarat notification says that no overtime would be paid to the workers. Karnataka too has joined the league in tweaking the labour laws to boost investment through the post facto approval by the State cabinet. The workers will work 12 hours a day for the straight six days. All these laws were made in a great hurry without going through discussion, debate and talks with all the stake-holders. This is a retrograde step to say the least. The workers have no say whether they want to do the extra hours or not. It is an attack on basic human rights and enslavement of labour. This will affect the weakest sections of the society the most. Trade Union organisations and activists have criticised these flawed attempts to take them home. Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, Maharashtra, , Bihar  enhanced the daily working hours from eight hours to twelve hours through executive orders in violation of the Factories Act, taking advantage of the lockdown situation. Lot of orders issued on the handling of the travel of the labourers/workers has created more confusion and conflict than solution to the problem in hand. The industrialists would employ more persons for lesser wages and can render the existing workers jobless in case they raise their voice. The industrialists can form a cartel, but the workers cannot form Unions or associations which robs them of their constitutional rights.

Out of sight, out of mind: India’s unorganised sector

The unorganised sector comprising the labourers, workers have always been out of sight to the policy makers. The Centre is perpetuating this disastrous error by sweeping this burning issue under the carpet. The Central Government which sees opportunity in this pandemic has ignored these crucial strata of the society and had a chance to fix its approach towards this vulnerable population. This population can be brought back only by incentives and not by coercion and draconian laws or by the whims of the capitalists. Reverse migration will compound the agrarian distress in an absence of non-agricultural jobs in villages. It will affect the income levels. MGNREGA needs to be strengthened. When the poor become literate, the rich lose their palanquin bearers is an old saying. Suddenly, we have lost the palanquin bearers. This has added a new dimension to the categorisation of work force as nameless, faceless, collarless workers.  The Government did not factor this category of workers which we now routinely see as a daily spectacle in all print, electronic and social media. Their fate is left to the good Samaritans and humanity which is a scarce commodity now in this era of materialistic world. These toiling masses are found everywhere making our lives comfortable and cosy and living on a hand to mouth situation. These are the masses who load and unload huge sacks of rice, wheat, vegetables, cement, steel, bricks, mortar at various places such as markets, mandis, agricultural market yards, road side eateries making crispy samosas, sweet meats at the local halwai, painters, miners etc. Many a times, we have seen that the shirts are an impediment in their jobs and standing before the ovens, stoves in the tropical regions such as ours. They would always be in their vests or banians which sometimes bear the brunt of their hard labour and maybe torn and ragged. These new categories of aspirational toiling masses are our fellow Indians whose confidence in the system which they dreamt to be a part of is shattered and punctured difficult to salvage.

According to various media reports there have been estimated 650 deaths of these migrant workers walking back home due to various causes. The deaths keep rising every day. Some of them go unreported.

The Government’s piecemeal steps are of little use in handling the situation. The Government erred in reading the situation, failed to respond either with empathy or efficiency. This episode has proved to be an international embarrassment for our nation. This is a huge failure on the first anniversary of the second term of this Government, yet another blot in its 6 year-old history. Now the latest slogan for this publicity crazy Central Government is Self-reliance or Atma Nirbartha: the last in a series of slogans such as Acche Din, Sab Changa si, when all that was expected of it was a minimum of governance.

The response of the government in this crisis reminds me of a famous Urdu couplet:





(The author is a concerned Indian who has requested anonymity)




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