Speaking to people on the ground shows that caste discriminations might force disadvantaged communities to migrate for work again.

Migrant workers returning home by trainImage for representation | PTI
Voices Migrant Labour Sunday, June 14, 2020 - 14:00

The author Terry Pratchett once said: ‘Only in our dreams are we free, the rest of the time we need wages’. This is the reality for many migrants on the move across the length and breadth of our country, many of them absolutely penniless or even if they have money they are saving it for their next bus or truck ride as they try to move from state to state to reach their final destination – their homes.

While we hear of citizen groups helping people get home by arranging buses and some even via flights, those are really only the lucky few. Many of the million workers on the move are treading the weary road on foot or trying to get some kind of vehicle to ferry them to as far as they can. A study by Aajeevika Bureau (one of the few organisations in the country working exclusively on migration and labour) estimates that the number of migrant workers in urban areas is 100 million, accounting for one in ten Indians.

A report by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) found that almost 8 out of 10 workers had shockingly not been paid at all during the lockdown. According to the Azim Premji University COVID-19 Livelihoods Survey, half (49%) of the households they spoke to reported that they did not have enough money to buy even a week’s worth of essential items; two thirds (67%) of workers reported having lost their employment, the ratio was 80% for urban areas and 57% in rural areas.

In a discussion with Johnson Topno from Jharkhand, who is the State Head for PHIA Foundation and is coordinating the Migrant Control Room at the Secretariat in Ranchi, he tells us: “In the last month alone we received 70,000 calls from desperate workers from all over the country.”

One of the calls handled by them was all the way from Ladakh where 200 workers were stuck. The Jharkhand government sought permission to airlift them and finally managed to start the process of bringing them back home on private flights on May 29. So far the Support Centre has helped bring back more than 1.2 lakh people to the state, but there are 11 lakh people identified at various locations across the country of which at least 7 lakh wish to return to Jharkhand. In Chhattisgarh (CG), more than 2.4 lakh workers have already returned to the state and at least another 3.6 lakh are expected to return. The state currently has more than 17,500 quarantine centres.

The workers who have managed to return are of course happy to be back in their villages, but many are still not in their homes and thus away from their loved ones. They have been placed under mandatory quarantine for at least 14 days in some building in the panchayat (Anganwadi centres, school buildings, etc).

Pre-existing fault lines in villages

Krishna M from Jharkhand’s Dhanbad makes a distress call early in the morning to a social worker he has been in touch with ever since he journeyed from Aurangabad, Maharashtra through Chhattisgarh and then finally to his village (by train the journey would’ve taken just a day but he had to spend four days on the road mostly being pushed into trucks by police personnel). In a distressed voice, he tells the lady in CG: “Please speak to the Mukhiya (Head) of the panchayat, he has not been giving us food properly or allowing our family members to come near us.”

In addition to not getting food, there are some religious tensions in the village because of which people of the faith other than his have made it home despite travelling with them all these days but he has not been able to. Krishna and his friends had even stopped in Dhanbad town before reaching their village, got health check-ups done and upon testing negative were sent to their village.

Left without food and shelter in cities, many workers have made arduous journeys to their homes in the village with the hope that something better awaits them there. However, once back home they do not want to encounter caste, religious and other discriminations which led many to leave in the first place.

Many studies and news reports show how caste discriminations still run deep in our societies, especially in villages. These pre-existing fault lines might prompt people, especially those from disadvantaged communities, to look for work in cities again. For those monitoring the status of quarantine centres, one of the frequent issues coming up is that of people not wanting to share space, and people from the ‘upper castes’ demanding different arrangements be made for them. Another issue is a common one – if the food is cooked by a Dalit or someone from a Scheduled Caste, then some refuse to eat it. However, pandering to people who want to engage in such acts during the time of a pandemic would be a criminal act. States need to stand firm on their commitments to abolish caste discrimination and assert the doctrines of Article 15 of the Indian Constitution.

The pull factor (in villages)

If handled well and given opportunities to work, many of these migrants could be better off in their villages or close to their villages. Studies like that from Beed in Maharashtra (2016) have shown that the disadvantaged castes are often not able to gain the benefits of migration. A study based on an analysis of Census data and research studies by India Migration Now showed that social segregation, labour market discrimination and barriers to accessing the most basic services plagued the livelihood and everyday life of migrants belonging to SC and ST communities. Exclusionary government policies, cost of living, and caste and religion based segregation often push migrants to the fringes of cities where their health and living conditions are compromised, as seen in an IndiaSpend report from October 2019.

While back in their villages, firstly people can vote in their leaders at the panchayat level and above which gives them some deciding power. Second they have access to the public distribution system (although One Nation One Ration Card should become a reality soon), they have easier access to medical facilities, and third they have easier access to reservations meant for them in schools, government jobs, etc.

Wages, the deciding factor

One of the questions Krishna from Dhanbad asks with a lot of anxiety in his voice is ‘Kya sarkar hame kuch paisa dega?’ (will the government give us any money?). He has heard that the Jharkhand government has been transferring money into the accounts of stranded migrants and is keen to get his share. Unfortunately, he was not able to register himself on the Mukhyamantri Sahayata App before the deadline of April 30, so he might not be able to get the assistance money (Rs 1,000).

For workers to continue in villages they obviously need employment. Both the central and state governments need to quickly swing into action to provide rural employment, something which will boost the economy too. While MGNREGA is being used to provide temporary employment, this might not be enough. Between April 1 and May 20, 3.5 million new people have enrolled in the scheme. However, there are not enough employment opportunities within the scheme. Migrants also have a range of skills and not everyone is keen to engage in digging pits, doing earth work, etc., much of which MGNREGA work calls for. A range of innovative ideas on how to engage skilled and unskilled people is the need of the hour.

For workers who were disenfranchised in cities and faced traumatic conditions and are now returning home, favourable conditions psychologically and physically (in the form of immediate wages and work) and a supportive environment are much required.

Rebecca David is a development practitioner based out of Chhattisgarh and is actively involved with Curio City Collective, an organisation that works on well-being in Indian cities.

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