Bihar migrants
Workers disinfect the luggage of migrants as they stand in a queue to board a bus to go back home, in Patna. Image Credit: ANI

Dubai: A ‘Shramik Special’ (Labourers’ Special) train carrying 1,200 migrant labourers of Jharkhand from Telangana reached Ranchi on May 2. This was the first of more than 1,414 such trains run by Indian Railways until May 18 to ferry stranded migrant workers from their respective places of work to their native villages. Make a note: The lockdown started on March 24. So it was not before 40 days of a nationwide shutdown that the first concrete measures were taken to answer the call of distress from migrant workers stuck thousands of kilometres away from their states of domicile. By that time, according to a rough estimate, more than 300,000 people had already made their way home from various parts of the country – mostly on foot, with the more fortunate ones managing to hitch rides on commercial vehicles passing by.

A humongous crisis

Reacting to the plight of these home-bound migrant labourers, senior Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta tweeted: “Wanting to go home in a crisis is natural. If Indian students, tourists, pilgrims stranded overseas want to return, so do labourers in big cities. They want to go home to their villages. We can’t be sending planes to bring home one lot, but leave the other to walk back home.”

The question that obviously arises here is: What could be the reason behind the establishment in India waking up so late in addressing this humongous crisis of hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers wanting to be back with their families?
Hapless lot
As they were rendered jobless at their respective places of work, owing to the coronavirus outbreak and its concomitant humanitarian disaster, the bare minimum that could have been done for this hapless lot was to ensure that they had access to some rudimentary means of mass-transit. And it’s not just the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre or the federal government that has been found wanting in its outreach to these desperate workers. Even most of the governments in non-BJP ruled states have failed to pass muster in charting out a plan to bring home people stranded in far-off places across the country.

Does part of this apathy stem from the fact that these migrant labourers do not constitute what in electoral parlance is called a ‘vote bank’? Are their stories not worth telling because these people usually do not have a say in the winds of change or permanence that decide political fortunes in the world’s largest democracy?

The answer is a definitive ‘YES’.

A cruel choice
During the last General Elections in India in the summer of 2019, a television news channel in India reported about a youth who was employed with a textile plant somewhere along the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. He was registered as a voter in Uttar Pradesh (UP), his home state, but had no voting rights in Maharashtra as he was not domiciled there. So this youth, along with a few of his workmates, also from UP and caught in a similar dilemma, applied for leave to go and vote in their home state. With little or no employee welfare measures to fall back on, their leave applications were met with a rather cruel choice at their employer’s end: Either continue working or go and vote and lose your jobs.

The youths opted for the latter!

‘Neither here nor there’
This is a classic example of a one-way commitment to a system that has often benefitted from voter participation, but never bothered to even pay lip service to the cause of this deprived lot. The primary reason behind this is the fact that migrant labourers have no voting rights in the states where they work, while their prolonged absence from their homes renders them ‘useless’ for political parties at their states of domicile. Caught in a perpetual warp of ‘neither here, nor there’, these migrant labourers are ‘dispensable’ baggage in politics of opportunism and electoral quid-pro-quo. Even if some of these labourers have identity documents, such as an Aadhaar Card or a Ration Card, they almost always bear the address details of their places of domicile and not the places where they are employed. This makes it almost impossible for them to claim their voting rights or have access to any form of social welfare scheme.

And it’s not just a tale of apathy, but greed and opportunism as well, whereby, sacrificing the welfare priorities of migrant labourers at the altar of profit maximisation is par for the course!

Exodus of cheap labour

As the first wave of migrant labourers started leaving their respective places of work to be back with their families in their native villages, when the lockdown was announced for the first time on the night of May 23, builder lobbies in India’s crucial real estate sector could clearly see a long-term danger to their fortunes. The exodus of cheap labour from states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh — with strong real estate portfolios — saw alarm bells ringing among the realtors and pressure soon started building on the respective state governments to try and stop the sudden outflow of migrant labourers from the states. On May 5, the Karnataka government announced cancellation of special trains meant for transporting labourers back to their home states. Following a massive public uproar, that decision was rescinded a few days later. However, migrant labourers in Uttar Pradesh were not so lucky as the state government passed an ordinance to suspend 35 of the 38 labour laws available in the state.

So far as legal support for migrant labourers is concerned, the least said the better. The Inter-State Migrant Workers’ Act, 1979, aims to safeguard the social and economic rights of migrant labourers. However, this legal provision is archaic and is hardly ever enforced.

The net result is labourers walking home and even dying ‘nondescript’ deaths in pursuit of a tomorrow that continues to elude them.