Migrant Labour-Haunting Images And Uncomfortable Truth

4 min read

By: Prof. J. S. Yadav

NEW DELHI: Images of miseries and sufferings of lakhs of people returning to their homes in the wake of Covid-19 will haunt us for decades to come. They had gone to big cities /town / villages across many states for better pastures to earn their livelihood. They mostly worked as contract labour in factories / casual labour in construction activities, agriculture labour or provided other services such as drivers, delivery men, and their ladies worked as maids in urban households. They were pushed by loss of their traditional work, breakdown of age-old Jajmani system of mutual dependence and support under the caste system, and indignities suffered at the hands of landowning higher castes. They were pulled by cities that offered opportunities to earn better wages and live anonymous and independent life so as to escape from tyrannical caste system in their villages.

With growing industrialization and urbanization migrations to cities was the dream journey for them, their families and children. They became part of the modern urban scene though remained largely invisible to the urban middle class, bore hardships, lived in small hutments/ jhuggies and even on roads still full of hopes and dreams of better tomorrow for their children. Corona –Covid-19 shattered their dreams.

On 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown; virtual curfew across the country, and advised people to stay at homes, keep social distance, and wash hands with soap frequently to guard against the corona deadly virus.The media and information channels disseminated information about corona dangers and precautions to create mass awareness resulting in enormous fear about the unknown Chinese virus that has taken lakhs of lives in advanced countries like USA, Italy, Spain, U.K. and many others across the world. 

The apprehensions about the danger of corona virus among urban slum dwellers and other marginalized people, who are migrants from different parts of the country, are perhaps no less and may be more in view of hardships and practical difficulties like: many people living in small rooms/ hutments, using community toilets, scarce water availability and even affordability of simple soap. Maintaining social distance and other health precautions like washing hands with soap was not practical in their case.   

The lockdown also meant loss of jobs / work for lakhs of migrants across the country and absence of money that they earned as daily / monthly wage earners to pay for their daily basic needs of food and shelter. With extended lockdown the fear of hunger and danger of corona virus made migrants’ longing for their homes and desperation to leave cities for their villages grew and the result we saw in the form of haunting images and uncomfortable truth about continuing huge inequalities in our society. 

The fear of coronavirus has forced Lakhs of people (young students and migrant workers with their families) moved from one part /state of India to other states, largest human migration, perhaps larger than partition of India in 1947.    In the process many exemplary social services were also rendered by way of helping the distressed through providing food, arranging / facilitating transport etc. It also led to tensions between states and regions threating the idea of one India. 

Be that it may, what next?  With unlock-1, economic, social, religious activities are to be resumed in phased manner while still observing certain restrictions and precautions as we have to live with corona virus for some months if not years.  Working from homes resorted by many businesses and offices during lockdown period is likely to continue as the new norms and economically a more attractive proposition in urban areas. Some jobs would no more would be needed and some new jobs will be created especially in in logistics and delivery sectors. But what about lakhs of migrants who have returned to their villages? Dole outs in the form of money transfers, and MANREGA are the welcome immediate relief measures. 

But that is not enough. They need more remunerative engagement. For this new work opportunities in the form of small and medium industries need to be created in rural areas in states / districts so that these migrants can also work from their ‘homes’. This would mean clustering of village communities and dispersal of urban settlements where travelling for services and work is minimized. Production of goods using local talent, skills, and resources, and marketing these to meet the needs of the countrymen /women should be the priority and not just for export creating export dependence of the economy. Travel long distances to cities in search of earning livelihood would not be necessary.  

Post Covid-19 India opens new vistas for entrepreneurs to set up new business and production facilities in rural India and suburbs. A whole range of products and services need to be created in each state. For example, instead of global brands like ‘Lays’ and other potato chips, in Bihar and U.P. where potato is grown in abundance local brand of potato chips /products (litti-chokha) need to be created with local flavours, marketed and consumed. India is a huge market.Persons with financial strength should seriously thing about the good possibilities of setting up their new production/ businesses in rural and suburbia and the young management / engineering graduates should help in setting up such new enterprises. 

Prof. J. S. Yadav is former Director of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, and is Founder Chairman of International Media Institute, Gurugram, Haryana NCR & Consulting Editor-ICN Group.

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