Understanding the grueling journey

migrant workers

 I am willing to be “negative” and “unpatriotic” during the present crisis. Yes, I am referring to the accusations leveled against the dissenting voices by the pro-establishment forces. If anyone questions about the intelligence failure leading to the attack on the security forces in Pulwama, he will be asked to shut his mouth as it will supposedly strengthen Pakistan. Questions raised over the Indian government’s claims about the surgical strike, will amount to undermining the morale of the armed forces. In the face of these standard responses of accusation and slander on questioning the government, it might be considered treason to interrogate Modi government’s handling of the corona crisis. The impact of the corona pandemic in its full deadly potential is yet to be known in India. Meanwhile, we are paying a heavy price for the government’s measure of locking down the country, that too, at a short, four-hour notice. The reported death toll due to the corona virus infection is 109, while more than 22 poor migrant workers died attempting to reach their home in far-flung areas of the country. Lakhs of migrant workers from all industrial and urban centers thronged highways to reach their native places, some attempting to cover about 1000 km on foot with malnourished children, aged parents and wife, without food and water and possibly with meager money. This death count is regrettable since these deaths could have been avoided with concrete planning before locking down the country. More worrying are the reports coming from the country of mass starvation of working people along with family.

But apologists of the government are responding to the criticisms with three approaches. First and foremost, the denial approach, which claims that the sufferings of the poor reported from across the country, are grossly exaggerated and the government is doing its best to ameliorate hardships faced by the poor. The second approach is one of conspiracy, which says that the large-scale reverse migration of the working poor is the result of the conspiracy of certain vested interest that are hell-bent to undermine the government’s fight against the epidemic, by spreading rumors and inciting the workers to leave the cities. The third approach accepts that locking down the entire country will bring immense hardships to the poor and might surpass the suffering caused by corona virus, but we should accept this as collateral damage in our fight against the deadly disease. Despite the government’s sickening claim of providing food to millions, the ground reality suggests that the picture is not as assuring as the government wants us to believe. A common refrain among working poor in cities is that they would die of starvation before the deadly disease can kill them. It is very clear that the conspiracy theory is without any basis. Moreover, the ‘collateral damage’ argument is invoked in context of a war, like, the killing of Afghan civilians during America’s ‘fight against terror’ was called collateral damage. Similarly ,the death of five million Iraqi children caused by American sanction against Iraq was seen as collateral damage. The Indian government must answer whether its fight against the corona pandemic is a war against some other country which suggests that the sufferings it caused to the working class be considered collateral damage. In the discourse of the urban middle and upper-middle class, these hapless migrant workers have weakened the nation’s fight against the corona virus by thronging to the streets in large numbers that mocks the necessity of social distancing considered indispensable to fight the pandemic. Some charitable voices among these strata come up with an explanation which says that the workers are so desperate to be with their families in the time of crisis that they are ready to walk even more than1000 km. Since the first position is not worthy of any consideration as it entails that the poor migrants are out to damage the country’s fight against the pandemic, let us concentrate on the second ‘finer’ argument. Nobody would deny that a human being would like to be close to their near and dear ones during a crisis. Migrant workers are not exception to this common human attribute. But can this reason compel the workers to take an extreme, and even fatal  step  like covering such long distances on foot? Can it be reason enough for them to put their lives at risk? No, but it can be argued that the poor workers were not aware about the dangers of such a risk; however,it is nonsensical that lakh of workers are so naïve as to not fathom the consequences of their actions. They made a conscious choice to return to their native places at any cost, they were very much aware of the consequences their actions would entail and, on that basis, they concluded that roof above their head and food in their stomach is all they need to survive. These basic needs would not be provided in the cities where they have toiled for so many years. They knew that their landlords would throw them out once they failed to pay their rents. There is no guarantee that they would be retained by their employer after the crisis is over, let alone getting their dues from their employers. So, when in the normal times they could barely survive, what they can do in the present-day crisis, how they would survive the long duration of three weeks, and this compelled them to start journey towards their native places.

As far as the labor laws are concerned, they seem to be complete fraud and offer no recourse to the working poor. Majority of the workers are without ration cards and they do not have gas connections. For these workers, migrating to the cities was a desperate move in itself: a desperation caused by widespread hunger, poverty and unemployment and now when they are fleeing the cities, it is again destitution that is driving them towards the villages. But this reverse migration narrates a different story. In their journey from the villages to the cities, the laboring poor had hope that one day they would able to feed themselves and their family members but this reverse journey is only marked by hopelessness and a grim realization there is no place for the toiling masses to lead life with dignity. Perhaps this word has no meaning for the working poor, and in their desperate journey back to their native places, the workers are definitely asking the question if there is no place for them. Why should they have faith in the government, political parties and even trade unions. All of these have failed the workers and it is time that the workers rise up against a system which is run on their blood and sweat, still making them redundant, superfluous, invisible, unimportant and dispensable. It is upon the working poor to remember the humiliation, hunger, hardship and tears that the system cast on them, this would definitely make them question their relationship with the system and their place within it, and more importantly why they have to survive on crumbs thrown at them. Only this would make them organize, to smash the system to make way for a more humane society where needs of the immense majority will be given priority and not the whims and greed of the parasites.

Starvation is a glaring reality for the poor in a country that makes tall claims of being the third largest economic power in the world. It slowly kills million in the world and majority of the victims belong to India. Starvation rarely figures as a cause in any postmortem report, but it is found in thin limbs, malnourished, and skeleton bodies, if anybody cares to see. The first journey was an attempt to flee from this starvation and the present journey is a realization that there is no respite from it. The journey towards the native places hope against hope that the laboring masses would be able to survive somehow in their native places. The cities provided them a pittance in the name of food and a sub-human existence amidst the obscene wealth and accumulation. The talk of five-billion Economy does not console a mother whose concern is to provide milk to her child. The smart cities pour salt on the wounds of the slum dwellers who live in not more than an 8 by10 feet room shared with several others, without proper toilet facility and open sewer running next to their rooms. Is it not a telling tale about the so-called largest democracy in the world, where the wages of the working class do not ever become agenda of any election? Is it just a coincidence that at the time of announcement of the lock-down, most of the working poor in general and the working class in particular, do not have enough resources even to support themselves for five-ten days without any work? No, it is not a coincidence because most of the workers receive less than 50 percent of the government-fixed minimum wages, out of which they make meagre savings, coupled with the uncertainty of finding jobs throughout the year. Needless to mention, the immense majority of informal working class have some agricultural land, mostly without irrigation and some members of their extended families are involved in agriculture activity. This is the last resort to which the working poor are returning, fully knowing that there is not much for them in rural India. However, they are aware that they do not have any bond with cities where they have toiled during the most productive years of their lives and yet they do not belong to it , they are permanently the ‘outsider’ and what workers themselves refer to as the ‘pardesi. Let us hope that the sufferings of the working poor during the lock-down will enable them to reflect upon the exploited situation of their class which has remained class-in-itself for too long and endured all sorts of humiliation and exploitation. No doubt their current ordeal will turn them into class-for-itself.

Gopal  Mishra is a a  trade union activist working in and around national capital region He also works as translator.  Recently Oxford University Press Published his translated work in hindi with the title  “Vikas  ki Chakki mein pisate log”(Translation of Alpa Shah et al edited book “Ground Down  by Growth”)




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