Corona Diaries 23: Will Agony Of Migrants Force States To Introspect?

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It is the well-heeled who allowed the virus a free ride to the country. And it’s the poor who has to pay the price.

Even as they wage a desperate battle against piling misery, they have to shoulder the blame of carrying the disease to all nooks of the country too. They are on the road struggling to make it to homes in distant villages while those who should bear the burden of culpability sit comfortable in their well-stuffed, air-conditioned houses. The situation is crammed with ironies.

We have to keep coming back to the topic of migrants because the sights and sounds of human agony haunt the conscience. The sense of guilt induced by the images on television refuses to go away. In fact, it gets accentuated as the yawning chasm between the promises of different governments to the migrants and the actual delivery on ground becomes more evident by the day.

Soon after lockdown was announced most establishments stopped paying the workers. The next to go was their meagre shelters. A 40-year-old migrant from Odisha committed suicide in Gurugram in Haryana as he was asked to vacate his one-room accommodation by the owner. He had no money to go back home and not enough food to survive on for long. Similar stories abound in all cities. Soon came the issue of food. Not enough money left to feed the families, they had to make a choice.

It was not an easy one: Buy food with whatever money left or buy a bicycle to go back to the village hundreds of kilometres away. Once among community members food will not be a problem, while it may not be the case in the city. Those who didn’t have money to buy bicycles decided to walk. Some held on to their savings to pay for the vehicular transport back home. Now, all of them are out there on the move.

It’s unfortunate that people have to make such calculations. The villain in their tragic story is not the virus, it is the people pushed them into a dire situation. Sometime later, as the corona crisis blows over, we as fellow Indians, must give it a serious thought. And while at it, we must remember that they didn’t have much of a role in getting COVID-19 into the country.

At this point, a few dimensions of the migrant problem call out for attention. Here we go:

BEAST OF BURDEN? NOT QUITE

Migrants build cities, metropolises, industries and whatever goes as grand achievements of mankind. It needs no overstating that no city in India, or anywhere, would survive without their ant-like efficiency and sheer numbers. Normally treated as beasts of burden, these builders of civilisations not only survive at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, they carry the entire weight of it too. But there is only so much a beast of burden can carry. The corona-induced crisis finally broke its back.

Many states, particularly the developed ones, are worried that the flight of migrant workers would ruin their economies. Without them factories, mills and industries of all kind would come to a halt. They even opposed trains to carry migrants back to their states on this ground.

Their attitude smacked of the abhorrent attitude that owners of those establishments carry towards workers: The latter is nothing more than cheap, replaceable labour; machines that could go on without maintenance. Their well-being, obviously, was never worth a consideration. Now that the flight of workers has happened and chances of them coming back soon are remote, will their be a change of attitude? Will workers bargain hard for better living conditions? Will the beast become a human being?

AWAITING A RESPECTABLE DEAL

Labour laws need to evolve, and a crisis like this offers the perfect opportunity. More than two centuries ago, when the industrial revolution was taking off in Europe, it was marked by the inhuman treatment of workers. Labourers, including children, suffered health hazards and died in hordes as rapacious industry players focused only on profit. Governments of the time had to intervene to ensure their well-being. Thus we had laws on working hours, minimum wages, women workers, workplace condition and restrictions on employing children, trade unions and so on.

The laws, interestingly, were backed by many factory owners and bigger industry players. For selfish reasons though. They realised that a physically and mentally fit workforce was a more pragmatic proposition than a perennially unhappy and ready to explode one. Replacing experienced workers at frequent intervals was not an easy option because the new ones, though cheaper, took time to reach their peak productive potential. Stable wages and fixed work hours not only improved the lives of workers, but also turned them into consumers of industrial products.

In India, some states have recently weakened the existing labour laws, allowing a freehand to the owner class to deal with their employees. It can only lead to overexploitation of the workforce and opening the floodgates for labour unrest. They should actually have taken the opportunity to address weaknesses in the current laws and made it an equitable deal between the workers and owners. In the current situation, the consequences may not take long to appear.

WHERE IS THE DATA ON MIGRANTS?

As thousands thronged inter-state bus depots towards the end of Lockdown 1.0, it was evident that state governments were flummoxed by their sheer numbers. None had data on the number of migrants from one district to another within a state and between states. The host states had no record of outsiders engaged in different activities and their employers, let alone their living condition. The migrants have been such permanent fixture in our cities an towns that their presence is taken for granted. When crisis struck, the magnitude of the migrant problem hit home.

How can governments, however well-intentioned they are, act when they have little data to bank on? How would they target relief, rehabilitation operations when they are unclear about the target population itself? The mechanism that is in place is obviously inadequate. The corona crisis serves a stern notice to governments at different levels: get your act right. Such negligence is morally indefensible. The consequences can be grave.

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