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Les Misérables

A massive skilling effort and encouraging these State to create new employment opportunities within their jurisdictions may be a way out.

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The migrant crisis has been a sad tale of “Ghar Waapsi” or “home coming” written in bleeding trails over thousands of miles by those that trudged home upon torn, bruised, swollen feet and those that did never make it home. Only this once; those that made it had other bruises and scars that are not apparent but will persist for decades from now.

The earlier generation saw a different migration during times of partition. The then painful visuals are still etched in many to this day. However, the contrast is palpable and depressing with hordes and hordes walking thousands of miles, barefoot, hungry and thirsty and nothing to look forward to. With complete lockdown imposed almost suddenly, they literally were consigned to the streets. So pathetic were the support systems, that both the beholder and the one in the midst, had to endure untold misery for days together. Was it not possible to better manage their travel? Was it not possible to provide adequate transport at least between the check points? One particular scene of a man, barefoot, looking old beyond his years and haggard, dragging his family of wife, mother and a child on a make shift rickety wooden platform that ambled along dangerously on a set of bearings or people cooped up in trucks like cattle, must have brought tears to the eyes of even a diehard cynic. Unfortunately, several died on the way, several took ill, women and children were maimed for life. For those less fortunate,  they left not just with bleeding feet and burdened hearts, they entered an era of disbelief, distrust, suspicion and bereft of all confidence. The bigger casualty was the demise of faith and trust in the systems we have.

Usually we see migration of rural people, in search of better opportunities. Poverty, food insecurity, lack of employment opportunities, natural resource depletion and environmental degradation are some of the reasons for migration. We are now witness to people migrating from at least a onetime assured meal and a shelter, to a wilderness of a village they left eons ago. The sudden lockdown exposed a very fragile relationship that the migrant workers had with their employers who also were left high and dry.

Whilst the jury will always be out to defend or defile the lords that brought this upon the les miserable, it is one atonement that is certainly not going to be easy. The appointed custodians of our nation and her faith would have to rise above a “Them Vs. Us” narrative and in all humility get down to setting the system right again.  Unless that is done, the ghost of not just those that died for no fault of their own, but the devil of disbelief will gnaw at the conscience of this nation that lies in absolute tatters.

India thrives on its informal sector, where nearly 90% of the country’s workforce is employed. In 2018, only 50% of the Indian population participated in the labour force, 81% of which was employed in the informal sector, or the shadow economy. The informal sector consists of enterprises which are mostly labour intensive. They have no concept of minimum wage and offer no security whatsoever. Many of them like the construction workers, domestic workers, sex workers, the homeless, street vendors are daily wage earners looking for jobs like loading or unloading.  

World over it is observed that the longer a rural migrant household head has been working in the urban areas, the more likely that individual has moved out of the informal wage sector. In a way, for internal migrants, the informal wage labour market is a stepping stone to a secured life in the formal sector. But has this been the story in India? A migrant labourer in India is poor, barely ekes out a living, manages to send a few hundred rupees back home in the village and perpetually lives below poverty. It takes generally generations to make the next grade.

Now that the curbs are being eased and lockdown slowly lifted, will the migrant labour return? Afterall it took them a good month or more to reach their vaunted safety. Normally migrant labour is employed by contractors who bring them to the cities. Due to this sub-contractor system, many workers do not even know for which companies they worked for. The contractors too left them high and dry once the lockdown was on in full force. With their lifeline broken, literally and metaphorically, these migrant workers and daily wage labourers had no one to hold accountable or even reach out for their unpaid wages.

Be all that as it may, some state governments, under their concurrent powers have even tweaked the labour laws in the name of necessary reforms. More flexibility to employers, facilitating ease of business, attracting greater foreign investment and an end to the inspection raj were the avowed objectives. Was it necessary to push through these labour reforms in times of great distress all around?

Admittedly food was distributed to some in distress and cash too was transferred to accounts for others. How could one expect a migrant labourer to carry his ration card to collect government rations? Or withdraw cash from a teller machine? Would he have been walking to his village, a good 1000 km away, had he an ATM card to withdraw money? Are food and cash mutually exclusive? The package announced by the government came late and was too little. The stranded workers needed immediate cash of at least Rs. 10,000 every two months to just make a living. That was hard to come by.

India has a federal structure. However, all States are not equal. Some Municipal Corporations have a larger budget than that of some States, though even they are hard pressed for keeping even the announced schemes going. Federalism cannot assume monopoly on decisions. It cannot socialise losses either. The poorer of the States must realise they stand to lose heavily in the fight against this pandemic without a generous support of the Centre.

While the lockdown eases, we might as well see roughly 50% of the labour returning in six months after the virus effect ebbs. The remaining labour may never return, permanently confined to utter poverty unless the States wield some magic wand to provide meaningful employment within their territories. Can we afford distress migration post Covid 19? A massive skilling effort and encouraging these State to create new employment opportunities within their jurisdictions may be a way out.  

It may sound passionate and nationalistic to espouse the learnings and teachings of the Ramayana and the Bhagavat Geeta, but it is also time to reconcile that those are no more than incidents in that vast cycle of times. Those two times were not even the same, as one belonged to the sat-yuga and the other belonged to the treta-yuga. This is a different Yuga. The Kali-yuga. Time may heal all wounds but time also wounds all heals. Therein lies the retribution.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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migrant workers COVID-19

Dr S S Mantha

Former Chairman of AICTE, Dr. Mantha is an eminent academician. At present he is Chancellor KL University and Adjunct Professor, NIAS, Bangalore.

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Yogesh Kochhar

The author is Corporate maven and a happiness evangelist

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