Migrant labourers want to go home, but what kind of life awaits them?

On International Workers' Day, here's a look into what millions of Indian migrant workers would need in order to live with self-respect and dignity

migrant workers

As per Jharkhand govt announcement, at least about five lakh Jharkhandi migrant workers will be returning home from different parts of the country once the lockdown is lifted. An assurance is given that all of them will be received warmly, reached to their homes safely and work from public sector undertakings will be provided. So far so good.

Two pull-and-push factors

(1) the ‘pull’ factor insofar as once the lockdown is lifted and small and big industrialists are told to commence production, they will call for workers who were once with them but now have gone home in different parts of the country. They may even add some further incentives to attract them to come back. We can be sure many will opt to go back.                                                                                                                 

(2) the ‘push’ factor will be the fact that after reaching home, most of them will discover that there is not much at home to keep them and their families going. 

A sample study of a predominantly Adivasi district [Simdega] in Jharkhand shows 60% of Adivasi families own 1-2 acres, 7% own 3-4 acres. 7% own more than 4 acres. That means the great majority own small pieces of land, and that land is mostly mono-crop land dependent on the monsoon. What they can produce from that land would not be sufficient to feed the family the whole year round, let alone meet other needs of the family. That was the reason why they originally migrated to near and far places in search of employment so as to earn some money for their families.  

So now that they are back home and will decide to remain at home, there are certain possibilities by which they can be with their families and at the same time be economically viable:

(1) Instead of just helplessly hoping that nature will be favourable to them, take some positive steps to improve irrigation facilities so they can have a second or even a third crop. Wherever there are rivers/rivulets in the vicinity to avail of govt projects to have small check-dams to conserve and use water for cultivation. 

(2) It is a fact that most villages have small or large water bodies like tanks which have over the years become fallow. Motivate and organise the village community to freely work together to repair, deepen, broaden existing water bodies. Such bodies can make it possible for more water available for various uses as well as for community-fish-rearing. 

(3) The importance of household and common open wells is public knowledge. It will be a revelation as to how these wells will self-replenish water once the other water bodies are maintained well. It may be noted the govt has various schemes to augment water storage which mostly go unutilised.

MGNREGA can be made a good use of. Already suggestions have been made to increase the number of days to 250 a year per family and to augment the remuneration to Rs.300 p/d. If every rural household will be included, it will create a tremendous amount of labour force. This can be effectively utilised not only to strengthen existing commons of the community but also to reach out to individual families to strengthen their assets such as open wells, transplanting and harvesting crops etc. It would be very important that Gram Sabhas play a crucial role in identifying projects, allotting workforce, disbursing remuneration etc. In so doing, the traditional form of self-governance of village communities can be restored. That will be a hearty development indeed.

Co-operative farming, instead of individual farming on the ever-fragmenting plots of land, would seem a most desirable alternative. Everyone realises as to how each family trying to cultivate and eke out a living from its small plots of land has only led to its increasing impoverishment. Although it  may seem to be a distant dream, it will be a real step towards restoring the traditional adivasi communitarian ownership and use of all natural resources. Adivasi society, before private ownership was thrust upon it by capitalist forces, was socialist in essence. Everything was owned in common and the fruits of nature was shared according to each one’s needs. It will be a historic opportunity for a people who were owners of land to being reduced to contract/casual labour to redeem themselves to their pristine glory of community ownership and mutual sharing. Besides, it will save so much duplication of efforts of each one trying to farm one’s own land which is proving to be more and more unviable. Will they rise up to accept this challenge? Surely no harm in proposing and persuading them to venture out to this new path.

To Seek justice 

What was done on March 24 by Indian govt unilaterally declaring lockdown with immediate effect was a serious act of injustice to all Indians but particularly to several lakhs of migrant workers all over the country. They were instantly thrown out of work and found themselves on the street. The only alternative was ‘to go home’ and be with their families. But most of them were far far away from their homes and the govt made no provision for them to reach home since all public transport (air, train, bus) came to a standstill instantaneously. Thousands of them started walking hundreds of miles often with some of their family members, carrying their small children on their shoulders. A few dozens of them died on the way out of sheer exhaustion.

The lockdown was extended till May 3, and all those who were on the road were stopped and forcibly put in temporary shelters with even basic needs unmet. Now hunger/starvation is haunting them, with several voluntary organisations/ individuals  trying to reach out to them although very inadequately. But the executive and the judiciary are saying ‘when food is provided, what more do they need?’ (!)

A grave injustice to the poorest of the poor is being meted out to them. The only way even a semblance of justice is done to them is to have legal recourse by filing a PIL at the HC/SC level demanding the govt to adequately compensate the people on the road.  Calling on socially concerned legal professionals to take up this task on behalf of the deprived migrant workers.

Open a new page 

To conclude, may we say that those migrant workers who are determined ‘to go home’ do so not with a sense of hopelessness of going back to an economically and socially unviable situation, but with an intent to open a new page in their life that will enable them to live in their homes with self-respect and dignity. Suggestions given above, if accepted and followed, will surely make it possible. That alone will be worth the immense hardships they have and are enduring. And it will be the bounden duty of all socially concerned citizens to reach out to the ‘home-coming’ migrant workers in whatever way possible to ‘open a new page’ in their life.



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