20th June 2020
Dr. Fahad Siddiqui, a friend in Gaya asked us to have breakfast with him before leaving Gaya. We had a sumptuous meal of puris, chola and mutton. This was one of the very few times I was having mutton for breakfast. We left Gaya and went to Sherghati, about an hour away and met Zeeshan. He is a social worker who has been working with various organisations for the betterment of society. The DEF team in Bihar had contacted him when they heard that there was a bus full of migrants outside of Gaya. This group hadn’t eaten food for two days. So Zeeshan was roped in to help them.
We picked him up and travelled to Bankey Bazaar, about 15 kilometres south of Sherghati. The plan was to meet Bharat, Sanju Paswan and Jagdish Paswan whom we had met in Delhi about a month back. Our encounter with them in Delhi was very troubled. They had left Delhi and were cycling to Gaya. Their employers had stopped paying them and their landlords were on the verge of kicking them out since they weren’t paying rent. When they started going hungry they decided to leave and cycling seemed the only possible option. When we had met them they were helpless, hungry, tired and disgruntled.
Seeing them in Gaya was a different story altogether. We found out that their village is in a Naxalite area so we asked them to come to the main road, in the village of Bankey Bazaar. As they cycled towards us all of it suddenly came back to me. I had met them in Gurgaon, they were hungry and tired and today when I met them they smiled at me; the smile was so warm that I could see it in their eyes, they didn’t need to remove their masks for me to see it. Today they sat down comfortably and told us the full story.
“I had to leave even with my two young kids because for us there was no other option” said Sanju, the man who had made the journey with his wife and kids. Bharat added “we faced many difficulties but we also found a few people who helped us. Some policemen were brutal however, some even helped us find a ride for a few hundred kilometers. We were tracking their journey as well, they called us every two days to give an update; I sometimes stayed up late thinking about them; wondering where they are, how they are doing and what troubles they would be facing. When we met them this time they looked satisfied, settled and calm, not happy however. There aren’t many job opportunities in Bihar, so while they have managed to return, they haven’t been comfortable since they came back. I told myself that this will get better as we left from there but the fact is we don’t know that.
Will it get better? Can it better? How should we make it better? There are many answers to these questions and yet those answers have remained theoretical. Implementing these ideas at a scale as large as India is going to be a herculean task.
As we started leaving they asked us to come and have lunch with them. We couldn’t go for safety reasons so we wished them luck, asked them to stay in touch and left for Ranchi. I had thought meeting them would give me some satisfaction but I realized that their problems are never ending and they are in a vicious cycle that is such that they have no option but to suffer. They started out in their villages, when they saw that there isn’t enough employment in their village they went to Delhi where they worked for years. When the time came for their employers to take care of them they were abandoned. So now they have come back to their village where they will again live in bad conditions. I believe the only solution that will be long lasting is to create job opportunities at the village level. Until that is done the people living in villages will either migrate from the village for a better income or they will stay in the village and earn a meagre amount. When they migrate most of them leave their families behind and separating families should not be the only solution we have for the large scale poverty and unemployment in our country.
After having lunch with Zeeshan in Sherghati we left for Ranchi. As we travelled on the Grand Trunk Road towards Ranchi I couldn’t help but think of the way this road has been used over the years. It has been the lifeline of trade in India over centuries. Ashoka started its construction and then later Sher Shah Suri extended it. It has seen all types of movements. In 1947 millions of people used it to travel to today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh and vice versa. That was one of the biggest migrations and atrocities that the world has seen. Today we are at a similar stage; all the migrants from Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh are using this road to go back to their homes in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh. For us the partition is something unimaginable but what we see today is not too far from it either.
As we entered Ranchi I started wondering how I’m going to meet my family there. in the evening I went to my grandfather’s house, my aunt, uncle and their three sons are there as well. Everyone at home has a soft spot for the youngest one. He is 2 years old and currently at an age where he has started saying some words. I went to their house and called them. I stood at a distance of four metres from the door as my grandfather walked to the door and wished me. Hugging is a thing of the past and as much as it feels odd, it is something we have to respect. As my cousin came running in my grandfather had to catch him before he ran to me. I thought seeing him from far would mean something more than seeing his videos. But seeing him from far was heartbreaking. I couldn’t hug him and play with him. He looked at me suspiciously at first then as I lowered my mask he smiled, remembering me. As he waved a goodbye to me I couldn’t help but think of what the migrants faced when they returned to their homes. They had been away from their children for months and when they came back the kids were asked to stay away. Covid-19 is not only a physical illness; it takes a toll on our mental health as well. This illness asks to be void of emotions.
20th June 2020
Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren, personally received the migrant labourers who arrived in Ranchi from Ladakh by a chartered flight.
The tribal state provides more than 11000 workers to the Border Road Organisation (BRO) every year to build roads in high risk treacherous and inaccessible terrains of Himalayan region. For the longest time they have operated through thekedars or middlemen who would invariably command a certain portion of the labourer’s income as commission. This led to intense exploitation because there was no documentation or legal understanding between the ones serving and served.
In a first of its kind initiative the CM has initiated signing of an MoU between the state government and the BRO under Interstate Migrant Workers Act. This will not only create legally binding employment opportunities, it will also stop exploitation of migrant labourers.
Migrant labourers are recruited through middlemen. The unregulated process makes them vulnerable to exploitation of various kinds. They don’t get their income directly from the employer. The employer hands it over to the middlemen who cuts a substantial chunk as his commission and gives the remaining to the worker. Furthermore, they often operate in high risk working situations, such as factories and mills.
A migrant shared that he witnessed a fellow worker accidentally getting caught in a paper cutting machine in a paper mill and got sliced into pieces. Their supervisor immediately ordered the blood to be wiped clean from the machine, and it was back in operation as if nothing had happened.
The migrant labourers are not entitled to medical benefits or insurance. If they are incapacitated or die during work, their families will most certainly sink further into marginalisation.
In the present crisis, the employment status of migrant labourers was severed unceremoniously without notice. They were legally not in the position to question their employers or demand severance compensation.
A young migrant family consisting of—husband, wife and a five year old daughter, rode on a bicycle from Gurgaon to their village in Bihar in the peak of summer. They didn’t even think if their daughter will be able to make such a difficult journey.
Their life has been turned upside down overnight. Employer of six years has abandoned them; owner of their rented house threatened them of dire consequences if they don’t pay or leave; their savings exhausted in meeting daily essential expenses, while they waited for the lockdown to be lifted. They decided to undertake life threatening journey because they had no other choice.
They survived to tell their tale as we tracked their journey from where it began—to its destination. Their daughter’s education has stopped and they have no land or support system to fall back on. Hence, they are clueless with very little hope in sight. Work provided under MGNREGA is the only source of some income, but it’s too irregular.
From that perspective, Hemant Soren’s initiative has the potential of revolutionising the unregulated migrant labour sector, and it will also put the onus on the state governments who are providing labour and those receiving them. However, for an effective implementation, they will also have to address low level systemic corruption, so that independent middlemen are not replaced by sarkari or government middlemen.
Every state has to play to their strength. Punjab is primarily a farming state, while Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu are ahead in small and medium size industries.
UP, Bihar and Jharkhand don’t have employment opportunities like aforementioned states, but their biggest strength lies in providing low income human resource. And how much ever richer states ridicule people from poorer states, their economy depends on them.
Harvesting season in Punjab generates lot of revenue for the state. It would fail if workers from UP, Bihar and Jharkhand don’t offer their labour.
Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai’s economy would crash without the labour force from UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, who assiduously undertake menial tasks that collectively realise bigger goals.
Private sector doesn’t have the capacity to address an emergency in large scale. The government has to step-in to take charge. Most of the migrant labourers echoed that their government has failed them, which includes both central and state government.
Statement like ‘Corona Express’ aimed at migrants arriving by train made by a certain CM only adds to the frustration of desperate citizens. People complained that Nitish Kumar wasn’t seen even once during 84 days lockdown.
Furthermore, there was a general feeling that all the states are competing with each other to keep the number of infections down in their states as if their political stability depended on it. So much so that they worked more as a Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Delhiite, Punjabi, Bengali—than Indians; which should be the hallmark of a federal state.
PM Modi’s Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA) is an encouraging step, even though one cannot overlook the agenda behind the time and place of its launch. Nevertheless, if it is implemented well and does lend a ray of hope to the struggling migrant labourers with a vision to build local economy, it would be a welcome step.