India’s ‘invisible’ people grease nation’s wheels, get misery in return

If a section of migrant workers have successfully resettled themselves in urban India, it is thanks to their own ingenuity

Migrant workers
An estimated six lakh people have walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes in the hinterland since the lockdown started on March 25. Photo: PTI

Scenes of migrant workers in their hundreds, nay thousands, abandoned on the streets and left to fend for themselves across India, is in sharp contrast to those ensconced comfortably in their middle-class homes in this time of the COVID-19 induced shutdown.

Rarely has the sorry plight of crores of fellow-Indians in the unorganised sector appeared as starkly as now. Justifiably, this has led to widespread media coverage on the tragic condition of families and individuals who are at a loose end – trudging the streets without food and shelter, leave alone protection from the dreaded coronavirus.

An estimated six lakh people have walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes in the hinterland since the lockdown started on March 25, the government conceded to the court recently. Apart from this, there are at least 10 lakh people in makeshift shelters run by the government and NGOs. These are just a fraction of the overall numbers of panic-stricken, bewildered workers in limbo.

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The real story, however, is that migrant workers, who are part of the country’s large unorganised sector, have never ever been taken care of by the Indian state. Here, we are referring to a sector that accounts for 80 per cent of non-agricultural jobs, no less, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

It is not as if the COVID-induced shutdown is the first time that the migrant workers have been left in the lurch. They have always been treated this way – uncared and unloved by various governments and complemented by the disdain in the manner they have been treated. The scores of images of the police thrashing vegetable sellers and upending their carts is a case in point.

India’s biggest failure, both in policy and in governance, since Independence has been the inability or the wilful neglect of workers in the informal sector who, for the most part, have been the foremost victims of natural calamities including floods and drought. For example, reports say a million people have been rendered homeless due to erosion in the Brahmaputra river basin over the past three decades.

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To make matters worse, insensitive government decisions have mercilessly targeted and dumped them into more misery. The latest one, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the shutdown just three hours earlier before it commenced on March 25, is being touted as an example as it gave no time for the unorganised workers to make alternative arrangements or leave for their homes.

If one looks at other examples, in January, before the coronavirus pandemic, there was the sudden demolition of around 500 makeshift dwellings in Bengaluru’s Bellandur locality using the excuse that they were illegal migrants from Bangladesh. It, however, turned out the 2,000 migrant workers living there were from other parts of India and from north Karnataka.

The court pulled up Bengaluru’s civic authority for the demolition and an official was transferred. But that is a different story. What happened to those who were driven out and their homes demolished? They were left high and dry. They could not return to where they lived and most had to find alternatives on their own, again fragile arrangements that can be destroyed anytime.

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Or, take for that matter workers in the construction industry both in government and private sectors. Many die or get hurt grievously in the course of their work. Though laws may exist on paper, it is not clear how many actually get compensation.

Worse, accidents happen because, more often than not, protective equipment are not used and safety measures are given a go-by either to cut cost or due to the lack of empathy for the life of the worker.

According to a study by technologists Neeraj Kumar Jha and Dilip A. Patel, 11,600 workers died in the construction industry between 2008 and 2012. A 2017 British Safety Council report states that, on an average, there are 38 fatal accidents in the Indian construction sector, which is the second-largest employer after agriculture.

Why would migrant workers want to leave their homes in rural India and come hunting for jobs to the cities? Again, official policies have rarely favoured the agricultural sector, infrastructure is abysmal in the thousands of villages and there is no guarantee that a decent livelihood is possible for those solely dependent on farming.

All it needs is a visit to India’s back of beyond and to villages that lie some distance away on either side of the smooth, shiny six-lane highways. Many villages are often empty except for the elderly and children. Men and women in the prime of their lives have left their homes to eke out a living in the cities, exploited and victimised. Just to give an idea, according to the 2011 census, of Uttarakhand’s 16,793 villages, 1,053 have no inhabitants and another 405 have less than 10 residents.

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For years, researchers have studied reasons for this forced migration and come up with tomes of findings, scores of feature films centre around migration (Do Bigha Zameen and Shree 420, for instance), politicians win elections promising better lives for the farm sector while reams of recommendations by expert panels have suggested alternatives. But little has been implemented.

Even the one attempt at providing jobs in rural areas through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), brought in by the previous Congress-led government, is dying a slow death despite government claims to the contrary, according to a report in the magazine ‘Down to Earth.’

No surprise then that mass migrations from rural to urban India have continued while large numbers who have chosen to continue with farming have committed suicide. Governments continue with their policies that do not care for these workers. In the latest figures released by the government in 2016, around 11,300 farmers committed suicide across India.

Paradoxically, the unorganised sector is involved in the most crucial of jobs without which cities and towns in India would collapse. Collection of garbage, its segregation, deliveries of commodities to homes, repair of home appliances, painting and repair of houses, housekeeping,  security and countless other jobs keep the wheel moving. There are 124 types of unorganised workers who account for 93 per cent of the country’s workforce, says a report in Twocircles. Net.

At the backend, these ‘invisible’ service providers have little state protection in times of a crisis like the corona shutdown now when their earnings have gone kaput in a moment’s notice. It is as if they do not matter. After all the dislocation and trauma that the migrant workers are experiencing, once the shutdown is lifted, many will return to what they were doing earlier and life will resume as if nothing happened. The wheel will again start turning, until the next crisis comes up.

If a section of migrant workers have successfully resettled themselves in urban India, it is thanks to their own ingenuity. No credit can be claimed by the government.

Unfortunately, it is only a minority who seem to have dug themselves in and moved into the category of the middle classes.

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Historically, trade unions have focussed largely on the organised sector with few to take care of those in the informal sector. Political parties too, beyond lip service, have rarely been concerned about migrant labour, possibly because they are not a vote bank. Since their names are registered in their villages from where they have migrated, they are probably not of much use to politicians in constituencies where they are regarded as outsiders and cannot vote.

The other, often unspoken, factor is the caste background of most migrant workers who either belong to the depressed Dalit communities or tribals. Many escape victimisation in villages by migrating to cities where they mingle with an amorphous population and get away from scrutiny. Unfortunately for them, the escape proves transient as it can come apart in times of difficulty when they are forced to return to their homes, as is happening now.

The sad truth is that they have been abandoned by a system that holds an illusion of promise only to fail when they need it most.