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Migrant Labour Crisis: How Did We Reach Here? An in-depth Analysis

A brief history about evolution of Migrant Labourers in context of the present Migrant Labour Crisis. In India the proverbial countryside is the real country.

Economic Divide

In India, the proverbial countryside is the real country. India lives in its villages. In India agriculture is not just a mode of sustenance but a way of life. Indian village economy is predominantly supported by agriculture and allied activities.

But what happens when the state loses focus from the heart of the country? What happens when the state fails to read the pulse of the countryside?

In the absence of proper state support the entire economy collapses, and what is produced from its debris is a vulnerable workforce running helter-skelter to cities for securing two meagre meals. With 60% of the country’s population residing in villages, no wonder, this workforce is going to be huge.

Indian Gangetic plain covers the most fertile land in the world. It was this endowment of such rich natural resources that brought the most ancient of civilisations into existence. It was this land which lured the ancient invaders and it was the same land which lured the medieval Muslim settlers. It was also the same richness that brought in and perpetuated the two hundred years of colonial rule. Yet it’s an irony that today the Indian village economy that was once so sought after has been left to fend for itself. In the absence of sustainable livelihood options round the year, the village economy has witnessed a mass exodus year after year of its next best resource, its labour force.

Now when we say that agriculture is a way of life in India, it also implies that India’s economic woes are agricultural in nature. India has traditionally been an agro-based economy but ever since independence, this sector has suffered from policy paralysis. That a vast pool of the country’s citizens derived their sustenance from agriculture was never taken up while designing policies and programmes.

The land reform for example that repeatedly featured in all five-year plans was never implemented properly in the absence of which most of the tillers don’t have the possession of the land. The patta or the ownership paper is held by only a handful few while most of the actual farmers who till the land have been reduced to landless labourers and contract farmers. To sustain and supplement their meagre earnings these contract farmers and landless labourers first get entrapped in the vicious relationships with the local money lenders and when the loan becomes too heave to payback, migrate.

These farmers who knew no other craft move to far off cities with the sole intention of sustainability exposing their vulnerability to an altogether new environment. Contrary to the popular perception that majority of the people migrate for seeking a better life, these marginalised folks from the hinterland migrate for the sole reason of paying debts back home and to ensure sustenance of their family.

Once in the cities, they occupy unoccupied land, pavements and footpaths and start their modest dwelling over time which grows into slums and over a period into a cluster. These slums function as mostly autonomous units and live if only at mercy of God. No proper drinking water facilities, no sewerage, no sanitation facilities make them a breeding ground of deadly diseases. The state exists for these godforsaken people but only to be dismissed. The slums and the residents therein are the underbellies of urban India. They expose the facade of development yet contribute towards it with their blood and sweat.

After dwelling, finding work is the next big challenge that faces this migrant workforce. Being unskilled and illiterate presents a double challenge in getting any dignified work. Here the ancestral relationships with the middlemen from the villages they have migrated from come into play. After paying out a substantial commission they manage to get work at construction sites, brick kilns or as helpers in nearby factories. Some amongst them start working as roadside vendors and hawkers. Yet the city fails to absorb this mammoth workforce and a vast pool of it is left jobless. For those who fail to get any work out of their misery, depression and frustration get involved in petty crimes. The petty criminals over time become gangsters and become a law and order concern for the city inhabitants. Similarly, some migrants in the absence of any work start begging while the womenfolk among them are pushed into prostitution. Thus, we see how the state negligence of the village economy has a cascading effect on urban India.

Migration existed in India even before independence, the seasonal nature of agriculture and the indebtedness to local zameendars and jagirdars pushed the poor farmers to more developed provinces of British India such as Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. Railway construction, cotton and sugarcane farming and processing industries were some of the major job providers in those times. The living conditions of migrants at the destination were so pathetic that it became a popular cry of nationalists to make village self-reliant. No less than Mahatma Gandhi envisioned an independent India where the villages would be self-sufficient. He coined the term Gram Swaraj that was later developed by Vinoba Bhave and which advocated a self-efficient model of village development where all the facilities for a dignified life would be available. Gram Swaraj or village self-rule was a model that was decentralised, human-centric and non-exploitative.

However, post-independence Gandhi’s vision was set aside. The idea that the village economy could be really turned into a self-sufficient one found fewer takers. Some steps like Green revolution were indeed taken but it failed to produce uniform results, more so because it was not applied uniformly, the result was the village economy of richer states like Punjab and Haryana made giant strides towards becoming self-sufficient but that of the poorer states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal who on the other hand had even better sowing conditions failed to grow. With the kind of diversity India had, it was incumbent on the state to device policies catering to regional requirements. But that was not to happen. This led to the total collapse of an already ailing village economy of certain regions. The British landlord nexus had already broken the back of poor farmers and whatever scope was left was done away with by the independent Indian state.

Over time these regions were made responsible for their own backwardness while the centre conveniently chose to look the other way. This ushered in the post-independence wave of migration. While the migration post-partition is much talked about, the inter-state and intra-state distress migration does not get much attention.

Much to Congress party’s dismay and BJP’s relief, Nehru Gandhi family is responsible for every ill facing India. In most of the cases the chain of responsibility indeed goes back to Nehru and where not, it’s his family which comes in to fill his place. Yet of such magnitude is the misgovernance of the Modi regime that it makes amusing the thought that in one or the other way the Nehru Gandhi family is still the accomplice. No wonder the jokes and memes have become so popular where Nehru is depicted as mocking the present regime by saying “Okay, I am responsible”. Thanks, the jokes are only as much as they are and do not have the capacity to obviate the fact. And while we talk about facts there is a hardened fact in policymaking circles, while the government’s keep on changing, the economic policies don’t. Going by the conditioning the opponents of Modi regime have received over the course of past six years, it would be a surprise to them if I hold the Congress regime and hence the Nehru Gandhi family accountable for the migrant crisis facing the country today in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

93% of India’s workforce is in the unorganised sector. The total Indian informal workforce is calculated at around upward of 450 million-plus as per varying estimates. According to National Sample Survey estimates 28.3% of workers in India are migrants. By this yardstick, 175 million workers move for work in the informal sector. Further, the migration pattern is marked by caste identities as well. Among brick kiln workers 95% of whom are rural, half i.e. 48.7% of all migrant workers are from the SC category and 16.1% from the ST category. Of the remaining 35.2%, 30.2% are OBC.

The available data indicates that the large influx of migrants is coming from Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra and the tribal areas of Gujarat. The major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

The Covid-19 crisis has for the first time brought the Indian labour migration issue at the forefront. There are many aspects to this large-scale humanitarian crisis some of which are associated with the source and some with the destination. As a precautionary measure to tackle the pandemic, India chose to go for the biggest ever lock-down in world history. With just an executive fiat the entire country was brought to a standstill. The wheels of the economy came to a sudden screeching halt. It was natural given India’s apathetic attitude towards it’s marginalised that the poor and most vulnerable section of society will again have to pay the most. But that wasn’t put into consideration. Just like the policies that created the migrant labour in the first place over the course of 70 years, the announcement of lock-down was full of contempt for the poor. While enough time was given to the Indians stranded overseas to return to their homeland, the trains and buses that ferried the labourer from source to the destination were stopped.

The destination dried up and evicted its tenants. It has been reported that almost 50% of labourers were not paid since the lock-down. In the absence of any means of sustenance, they chose to walk back to their home hundred of kilometres away on foot. It was just the last year on October the 2nd that the country had celebrated the 150th Gandhi Jayanti. The day assumes significance in the current scenario since the day was marked by all political parties carrying out a token march in commemoration of Mahatma and his march from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, an important event in life and journey of Gandhi, that underlined India’s nonviolent fight against oppression. Six months since the event the Indian labour class has started another such march in distress but without any fanfare. Gandhi the pioneer of Gram Swaraj and the Messiah of underprivileged class today would have lowered his head in shame. But for those who are alive today, shame eludes.


The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Voice of Margin.

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