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Opinion

Documenting the History of Indian Migrant Anguish | Analysis – analysis

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Since the shutdown began, stories of migrant workers have haunted the country. These stories of suffering and hardship have become the face of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in megacities in India. There is a strange similarity to many of them, highlighting an unequal society that has sparked a humanitarian crisis that erupts during an unprecedented health crisis.

Earlier in the closing, one of us noticed two children who lived on the construction site next door. They said nothing and asked for nothing, but there was hunger and curiosity in their eyes. They were the children of Ranju, a migrant worker from Bihar, who worked on the construction site. The pandemic had paralyzed work for her and 15 other Bihari workers: no wages, little food, and no gas for cooking. Since then an economic package has been presented. However, job angst continues.

Why did migrant workers make the punishing journey from the big cities back to the indescribable cities and towns of Bihar to a large extent, and in Uttar Pradesh (UP)? The following narrations by Poorvanchal (eastern UP and Bihar) demonstrate the need for a nuanced understanding of the precariousness and anxieties of the migrant workforce and the need for state policies that take this into account. The two states represent 37% of the country’s interstate migrants whose lives and livelihoods are now uncertain, at least in the near future. We speak to dozens of workers and community leaders to understand their anxieties and experiences, and policy makers to understand their responses.

Migrant workers across the country had similar concerns. The absence of basic services, the inability to feed their children without ration cards from the particular geography in which they were locked up, and the lack of a safety net to protect themselves from Covid-19 made them desperate. Worse yet, the lingering fear of eviction played into their minds during the day, while mosquitoes bit them at night. There was no extra money to buy soaps, disinfectants or the most essential product of the time: masks. Their economic insecurities persist despite government action in recent weeks.

Take some examples from Sitamarhi and Madhubani, Bihar. Rajesh worked on a construction site; Rajkishore Ram, Fenkan Raut, Manoj Manjhi, and Roshan Ram were workers in one shoe factory, and Subhash Sah was a manufacturer in another factory. None of them received their wages. The situation was worse for seasonal migrants who ranged from home to destination states. Amar Singh, a farm worker in Gorakhpur, who doubles as a painter in Delhi, traveled 900 kilometers on a motorcycle, only to have his people chase him away. Those who arrived from the city were reported to the police and pradhan, the village chief.

In Riwilganj, Bihar, the Simariya School Quarantine Center provided a respite to those who had returned. Food was provided three times a day. A mosquito net, towel, and toiletries were also provided. But it was life beyond quarantine that worried them, because no one knew where they would find work.

Their fears are immediate and long-term. Unemployment estimates from the Monitoring Center for the Indian Economy are in serious condition. Bihar has had one of the highest unemployment rates in March and April. While the country’s average unemployment rate was 23.5% in April, Bihar’s unemployment figure was as high as 46.6%. Uttar Pradesh is relatively better, with an unemployment rate of 21.5% in April.

Many of these workers escaped servitude in the villages and flocked to the cities only to be forced to restart work in the villages, on farms and in brick kilns, now that the pandemic continues. Mahatma Gandhi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee System (MGNREGS) is now the bulwark of rural employment. In April, almost 856,773 households demanded employment in Bihar. Of this, only 73% of households could get a job. Of the 1,113,644 households in UP that demanded work through MGNREGS in April, only 67% received work. With hundreds of thousands of people likely to join the workforce in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, demand for MGNREGS is expected to see a sharp increase. Generating work and guaranteeing regular payments will be a challenge. Bihar has a built-in disadvantage due to the extensive lack of land: 80% of rural migrants are landless or have less than one acre of land.

However, despite precarious work in cities, without secure wages and little social support, the poorest workers in India have acted sparingly, still following, within their limitations, the rules of social distancing.

Historically, pandemics have offered opportunities for workers to negotiate higher wages and better conditions. In India, the pressures of malik (bosses), the ubiquitous informalism of new economy jobs that do not lead to job recognition, and urban middle class claims of exclusion of the urban poor are part of a bigger problem. Opportunities are difficult in conditions of inequality and assertions of power. India must do better, starting with inclusive urban planning and political reforms based on a work ethic.

Manisha Priyam is Associate Professor, NIEPA, and Mridusmita Bordoloi is Principal Investigator, Responsibility Initiative, Policy Research Center.

The opinions expressed are personal.

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