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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 28, New Delhi, June 27, 2020

COVID and We, the migrants of India | Aashish K Shukla

Friday 26 June 2020

by Aashish K Shukla

’We’ are the framers of the world’s largest constitution and the pillars of the largest democracy. We have equally contributed in nation-building. We altogether have brought India to that level in the last seventy-three years, that even today in this crisis, we are saying with great confidence that ‘the world is looking towards India’. But we, who made this India are on the streets for the last several months and unfortunately no one is there to see us. ‘We, the migrants of India’. We are the last men of the society for whom ideologues such as John Ruskin, Mahatma Gandhi and John Rawls appear to be concerned. For whom they have certain expectations from the state. These expectations are about our interests and welfare. These expectations are related to the policies of the state for the marginal group of the society. Although the preamble of our constitution identifies us as the people of India. But, for last few months, we have been identified as the migrants of different states. We are being treated as the resident of different states instead as citizens of India. The borders of the states have been locked so that we, the ’outsiders’, could not enter in their territory. While adopting the Constitution, in its preamble, we declared the modern values like justice, liberty, equality and fraternity as our ultimate goal. But today this preamble is nowhere to be seen among the divisive rules of the states. Each state is seen upholding with its own preamble, in which the people of India have been made ’migrants’.

Achievements and opportunities?

Even in a state of crisis, the government hasn’t forgotten to celebrate the completion of its one year by propagating its achievements. But in these achievements the working class of the country is nowhere to be seen. The achievements which are being continuously talked about are not completely false. But how do these nationalistic achievements make a sense for the workers who have been walking on the roads for days and months with their families, is beyond comprehension. The Vice President of the country, Venkaiah Naidu, stated that there is a need to collect statistics of migrant workers to provide employment. But the question is why these figures have not been fetched till date? The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act came into force in 1979. But actually, this act or its provisions are invisible. Why has it been continuously ignored by all the states, despite being a law for the last 41 years? On looking for a solution to this question, the three pillars of the government are seen standing in the dock. According to the 2011 census, the country has about 5.6 crore inter-state migrant workers and about 60 percent of them are laborers working in the unorganized sector. Myriad of working class is contributing to the society without any social, economic, political, and legal protection. Till date the governments do not have any definite data of these workers, that’s why no concrete plan has been made for them. This is the reason that for last two months, these masses faced a livelihood crisis. Higher growth appears in the figures than we have seen on the ground in the last 70 years. But we have not been able to bridge the gap between the growth and the development till date. Therefore, we suffice ourselves with abrupt statistics but with the advent of any crisis, these stats seem nothing more than numbers put in mere black and white. The development is nowhere to be seen on ‘ground zero’.

Nowadays, a phrase is echoing in every nook and corner - ’This is an opportunity, not a crisis’. Some of our economists opine that India and its nationals should be prepared to grab this opportunity. Whenever we read and listen this line, our mind starts wondering, what opportunities are being talked about with such confidence even in this disaster? and Whom are these opportunities for? Are they businessmen, industrialists, politicians and the upper class of the society, those who have never lacked lucky days or for those who have all hard lucks since last seventy-three years of independence? If there is a shout about shots for the affluent class, then there is nothing new. And, if it is a matter of giving chances to the deprived section of the society, then it seems to be a fallacy. The ones who were denied the basics earlier cannot receive any benefits during these traumatic times. For almost three months, the country has been wandering on the streets and our leaders, the guardians of the country, are busy in making worthless plans and showcasing wonderful execution of several schemes. giving big figures through several schemes.

Between nation and state

In the last few years, we have seen the idea of nation gaining importance over the state. The government implements each of its policy or rules in the name of nation, national interest, nationalism, etc. A significant section of the society also supports the government. Decisions like demonetisation, GST had been supported by the people with the hope that this would change the nation, and if the nation changes, perhaps it would make some difference in their lives too. Government policies have proved to be effective in few previous years but in this state of emergency those policies have failed to trigger any change. A large section of the country is in trouble. They have been tagged as migrants in their own country. Various states are seen to be restricting the right to use goods and services within their territory to the permanent residents of the state. Haryana is preparing to reserve 70 per cent of the seats in the private sector for the residents of Haryana. Basic amenities like health in Delhi had also been limited to natives of the capital only. Several states, including Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, have started the exercise to enact stricter rules to prevent workers of their state from moving to other states or to control their migration, which is directly the violation of Article 19 (1) (D) and (G) of the constitution. The states argue that they will provide employment to the domicile workers in their own state. But this argument weakens in the face of the fact that it is the failure of the states to provide economic security that forced migration of labour for so many years. The process of liberalization that began in the 1990s led to the establishment of large-scale industries in cities. These industries attracted unemployed people from villages and small towns to the cities. As a result, an extensive intra-state and inter-state migration could be seen in last 30 years. But the lack of effective labour laws in the country and the disregard of the existing labour laws have negatively affected the interests of these workers. Now governments are planning to attract capital investment through amendments in labour laws to ensure the livelihood of the returning workers and to overcome the economic crisis. Instead, if even the existing labour laws were implemented in first place strictly, the workers could have been saved from this predicament.

The way out

The goal of a democratic rule is to establish a welfare state which protects the interests of its citizens. This aim can be achieved only by equitable distribution of resources. Governments are responsible for the equitable distribution of resources among different sections of the society. But today the plight of workers is evidently seen rooting in the irresponsible behaviours of governments. This can result in disenchantment of people from the ideals of nationalism. It can pose a danger of promoting sub-nationalities in the country. Such situations push the country towards massive outrage. Once found a strong leadership, these migrants can once again be on the roads. But this time the Jana (people) and Tantra (system) will stand facing each other in the struggle for power and rights. In order to avoid this dual, governments must look back to Gandhi’s Sarvodaya, and target the least advantaged group of the society i.e. the Jana (people), who are still in searching for a hope. The policies must be made in such a way that if the policy maker ever stands in the position of that Jana, then he himself will not have to face any kind of discomfort. If governments are able to do this, then there is a possibility that the migrants of India might able to enjoy their civil rights that actually make them the people of India.

Aashish K Shukla (Ph.D. Scholar), Dept. of Political Science, University of Delhi, Doctoral Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi | E-mail: akshukla[at]

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