Suddenly the category of ‘migrant worker’ has hit the headlines and prime time news slots. They are competing closely with the plight caused by the virus and could make them visible only after the death of 353 poor people; death caused by anxiety due to job loss, accidents while walking back home, lack of medical care, police brutality, starvation and financial distress (Thejesh G.N. and Kanika Sharma study, The Wire, May, 10). It seems that the lowest rung of ‘aspirational India’ who left their home with a shadow of the future for higher earnings, better living and dignified identity from 150 districts of different parts of India, particularly Bihar, UP, MP and Jharkhand moving to the spectacles of growing India: Delhi, Mumbai and Tamil Nadu are driven back, are shown their places. They are the ‘illegitimate children’ of Indian capitalism who are disowned by their workplaces are invisible to policymakers, unwanted by their birthplaces, destined to die unnoticed amid railway tracks and national highways. They are the biggest collateral human cost of the current lockdown.
Migration is nothing new in India. In fact, it is anterior of the popular imagery of self-contained villages of pre-modern India. In eighteenth and nineteenth-century workers migrated to work in indigo and opium fields or gunpowder factories. People from the Western Ghats or Ganjam in the east coast moved to Rangoon worked in rice fields and pottery and later from the mid-twentieth century rushed to Surat and Bombay to work in textile mills. Dhangor and Oraon from Chotonagpur Plateau moved to Assam tea gardens or Jhoria coal fields in Bihar during the colonial rule. Tamils went to Ceylon, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore as labourers (India Moving, Chinmay Tumbe). The stream of indentured labour particularly the Bhojpuri workers were ported to Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji and Peru to work for colonial plantation of rubber, sugar, coffee and tea continued to move out in search of a dignified life albeit of a worker still better than what the caste hierarchy of rural India can offer to them. Bihari workers in the nineteenth century went to work in Bengal jute mills, to fields of Punjab and Haryana after the green revolution and finally to Delhi or Mumbai for construction work and Kerala during the recent migration wave.
Poor people had been on the move for several reasons. But the movement was much more gendered, mostly male migration, in the past compared to what it is today. One of the surest indicators of sources of outmigration had been the sex-ratio of the region being persistently in favour of the female. Migrants moved out not necessarily always from the poorest regions. It could be because of a frequent cyclone or high density of population but most of the time because of the difference between expected income in destination places compared to existing options and the difference is high enough to take care of the cost of migration. The migrant population in the 2001 Census was 33 million which has increased to 51 million in 2011 Census. But studies suggest this is a gross underestimation of work-related migration because the definition of a migrant worker according to the Census hardly captures the circulatory nature of migrants who travel and work for shorter periods than six months. Only commuter migration that is those who travel for a day or so is estimated to be 10 million in India. Estimates suggest that total work-related migration in 2016 could be 17 to 20 per cent of the 50 crores working population and the absolute numbers could be somewhere between 7 to 10 crores. The average growth of migrants during the decade 1991 to 2001 was 2.4 per cent which has increased to 4.5 per cent during the decade 2001 to 2010. Notable is the fact that the average growth of female migration from 2001 to 2010 was 7.5 per cent which is much higher than the general rate of growth. During the period 2001-2011 using the Cohort based Migration Metric the Economic Survey, 2017 estimates an annual average inter-state labour migration of 5 to 6 million and also suggests that the ratio between the flow and the stock of migrants have increased over the years. The government also makes an assessment of the annual flow of inter-state migrant workers using the travel data and frequency of train passengers in unreserved compartments and that indicates a flow of 90 lakh inter-state migrants every year.
The rise of migration in India in recent decades is related to high growth episodes, particularly of the construction boom. In the past three decades, there had been a significant shift of people from agriculture to non-agriculture and people were absorbed mainly in informal manufacturing, trade and transport and other business and personal services. Neoliberal capitalism ignited uneven development and regions in terms of growth didn’t show a converging trend. Rather growth poles, SEZs, smart cities and urbanisation drew people voluntarily or involuntarily to urban centres and metro cities. The decline of agriculture and protracted agrarian crisis, low public investment in agriculture, fluctuation and uncertainty in output prices led to a grand push of people from rural India with the lopsided notion of development that has written off agriculture altogether. The huge influx of urban poor effectively reduced the bargaining power of the working class, pushed down the reservation wage of the labouring population and facilitated further asymmetry between the employer and the docile migrant worker.
We see the precariat who are like packets of labour-power often without a name in any records, who are packed like animals in lorries and ported to the construction site every morning or cramped in nearby slums catering to a factory. They are also rag pickers, waste collectors, domestic workers, porters, auto drivers, sex-workers, beggars, the lesser humans of lower caste and class who are neither protected by the employer nor the government and devoid of any empathy from the community. They live without a dream of a career, they have only moments of present and hardly any idea of a future which is beyond months and years. It is their remittance that feeds their family living in villages and it is the only place of solace where their life and death are counted beyond numbers as fathers, mothers, brothers, sons or daughters. This is the precariat who are the most vulnerable and disposable labour force. To be counted as a human being deserving some dignity and rights they are to face enormous hurdles from the employer, landlord, police, local administration, hospitals, schools and everywhere and a sigh of a burden that the city bestows in every moment of daily life. But they are the lifeline of modern development, a mass of labour force about one-fifth of the total that does not carry any baggage of rights and dissent. Making them work for longer hours or arbitrarily punish them by paying low wages or simply throwing them out of job do not invoke any legal constraint. They are half citizens or denizen as Guy Standing puts it in his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and hence can’t even claim the social security or benefits of public services that the state offers. They are invisibilised in this nebulous legal-administrative framework. We get to know them only when they die and die in large numbers, either because of a fire breaking out or out of poison or any such accident that creates a momentary shock in the psycho-social serenity of middle-class gaze. This time it is a caravan towards hell, a journey of pain and death, uncertainty and starvation but with a desperate hope to at least see the smile of their kids or old parents, where they would find themselves as human beings once again, have some legitimate claims on the sky and the fields, rivers and grasses, and can share their grief with their beloved ones.
Recent video clips of Ghaziabad, Anand Vihar, New Delhi Railway station, Surat or Bangalore remind us of earlier incidents of mass deportation and related massacre. India had experienced such trauma several times on a much larger scale. It was in 1941 when 4 lakh people had to walk back thousands of kilometres from Rangoon and landed in various refugee camps in India. During Partition it was about 1.7 crore people who were displaced on both sides to define our nationhood. In 1971 about one crore people poured in who were rescued by India. This time it is different. It is not because of Pakistan or Bangladesh, China or Sri Lanka it is we the people of India who closed all doors to our fellow citizens, robbed their wages which were due for their work, extorted rents or transport fare, the nation missed out to notice them and now vilify them as the new category of corona carriers. Migrant workers became refugees in their own country, the void in nationhood resounds in every death. Perhaps, they have to walk a few hundred miles to find their home land.
The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi