In light of the ongoing migrant crisis, one cannot overlook the irony that eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal—the regions known for exporting the highest number of workers throughout India—have also produced half of the 38 railway ministers in the last 73 years. In the three decades between 1980 and 2010, politicians from densely-populated eastern India have virtually monopolised this portfolio. Not just that, these regions, being the most populous states, also send a large number of Members of Parliament—Uttar Pradesh elects 80, West Bengal 42 and Bihar 40 MPs every five years. That is, almost a third of all elected representatives are from these high-migration states.
From Kamalapati Tripathi, ABA Ghani Khan Chaudhuri and George Fernandes, to the Ram Vilas Paswan-Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee-Dinesh Trivedi-Mukul Roy trios—prominent leaders from these regions have dominated the Indian Railway’s headquarters at Rail Bhawan in New Delhi. (Not to mention Lal Bahadur Shastri, Babu Jagjivan Ram and Lalit Narayan Mishra.)
True, Tripathi, Mishra, Fernandes, Choudhury and the troikas from Bihar and Bengal had introduced some big rail projects in their respective states. In their time, a couple of Railway Zones had also been created and the Railways undertook gauge conversion on a large scale, especially in north Bihar. Yet, the misfortune is that the migrant labourers who elect these leaders are the ones suffering immensely during this crisis.
It was projected at one time that toning up railway infrastructure from the Poorvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh to the Mithilanchal and Seemanchal belts of north Bihar will push up the possibility of industrial investments in these “far-flung” areas. No doubt gauge-conversion has virtually been completed in the northeastern states, which paved the way for Arunachal Pradesh to get a spot on the railways map of the country. It also smoothened the flow of goods and passengers to and from eastern India.
But instead of attracting huge investments, the improvement of railways—as well as the investments into better road connectivity—have primarily facilitated the outflow of workers to different corners of the country.
Take the example of Kishanganj, a least-industrialised town in north-east Bihar, which is close to India’s borders with Nepal and Bangladesh. From here, one can catch a direct train to almost any city or town of India. Kishanganj is just one example. Trains from every single railway station in eastern India are jam-packed almost throughout the year, invariably filled with workers headed in search of work at the industrial belts and urban hubs far away.
Earlier, it was believed that if the number of trains increased, it would help passengers get reservations easily. But even that only served to increase the rush: the demand for tickets has only grown over time. The data also shows this trend.
While an all-time high of 858.030 million individuals boarding the trains was reached in June 2014, April 2020 has marked a record low, of -7.920 mn, as the lockdown put the Railways out of action like never before. In January this year, over 715 million passengers had boarded the trains (including suburban and metro trains), and this has been a broadly stable trend for decades. Therefore, despite the increased options for road travel and the growing number of people who prefer to fly to their destinations, the passenger traffic of the railways has remained broadly stable.
This is connected to the eastern Uttar Pradesh and north Bihar regions. These parts of the country are home to some prestigious parliamentary constituencies, held by the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar and the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Eastern Uttar Pradesh, north Bihar and north Bengal are essentially an agrarian and flood-prone zone and they are also relatively far from the major mining-industrial belts of the country. It can therefore also be argued, based on migration trends, and from rail passenger traffic data, that the toning up of railway infrastructure did not pave the way for industrialisation in this thickly-populated region.
Though agricultural productivity of the region improved thanks to better irrigation facilities, introduction of high-yielding seeds and fertilisers as well as increased electricity-production, on the industrial front, the scene remains as bleak as it was during the late 20th century. This is the situation even after pumping funds to the region different Prime Ministers and other VIP candidates, such as Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and others, who set up some industrial units in their constituencies.
As the region labours under a surplus of farm workers, the first to migrate away from these regions were the agrarian workforce. They went to Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, which had embarked on the Green Revolution project during the early 1970s.
Thereafter, the improvements in the road and railway network gave a big fillip to the migration of all other types of workers. It must not be forgotten that these labourers have contributed immensely to the fortunes of the urban residents. For instance, they worked as industrial labourers engaged in the construction of electricity-generating plants. Who but migrant workers were behind the construction of the National Thermal Power Corporation’s infrastructure or that of other power plants?
Consider what the data from the previous Census, published in 2001, tells us about India’s trends in migration. In 2001, that is almost 20 years ago, Maharashtra was already at the top of the list of migrants, with 23.8 lakh net migrants, followed by Delhi (17.6 lakh), Gujarat (6.8 lakh) and Haryana (6.7 lakh). Even at that time, Uttar Pradesh (-26.9 lakh) and Bihar (17.2 lakh) were the two states with the largest number of persons migrating out. To add another detail, the Greater Mumbai region alone drew about 24.9 lakh migrants between 1991-2001. Therefore, it is impossible that the Indian authorities, whether at the Centre or states, did not know of the tremendous contribution of migrant workers to their region’s development, or their actual conditions of life.
It must also be remembered that historically-speaking, migration is not a new phenomenon to India. Labour migration in independent India is naturally a very different phenomenon than the migration which took place from, say, the Bhojpur region of Bihar and from parts of western Uttar Pradesh to Kolkata and Jharkhand in the late 19th and 20th centuries. A massive number of Indians were also taken overseas by the British rulers prior to Independence. The British rulers had transported lakhs of workers to South Africa, the Caribbean and other islands in Indian Ocean, such as Mauritius and Fiji, to work as indentured labour.
In this context, consider the more recent Census of 2011. According to this report—which also is now almost a decade old—the single category of “migrants from other states in India” consists of 42,341,703 or 42.3 million persons, who make up 13.8% of the total migrant population of the country.
Yet, as events unfolded, it became clear that before the 24 March announcement of the lockdown by the Prime Minister, nobody in the policymaking space seemed to have imagined that lakhs of the very same labourers who have built every nook and corner of India would have had to walk home on the train tracks that had brought them out of their native places.
Some of these migrants chose these rail routes to avoid the high-handedness and barbarity of the police and the restrictions imposed by different state governments at their borders. In the process of trying to get home, some of these workers met with tragic accidents. Such mishaps on the roads and railway tracks have, by now, led to the loss of many lives in the last one-and-a-half months of the lockdown.
The mowing down of 16 labourers of Madhya Pradesh near Aurangabad in Maharashtra in the wee hours of 8 May sent shock-waves across the country. There is no dearth of people who are accepting the media reports on the incident with a pinch of salt. Their point is that the hapless victims may have just been seated on the tracks with their legs outstretched when they were caught napping. But because this accident puts both the state government and the Centre in the dock, the truth behind the misfortune may never be known.
The blood on the railway tracks has exposed the sad aspects of the lockdown as well as India’s industrialisation—this particular batch of 20 labourers (four of whom survived) were actually working at a steel plant in Jalna. The tragedy is that these workers were carried home after their death in the same trains which were supposed to ferry them home, if you go by the official version of things.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.