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Govt in April claimed that 1.5 million migrants were on the move. (ANI)
Govt in April claimed that 1.5 million migrants were on the move. (ANI)

Opinion | Covid exposes the underbelly of migration story

The accident in Aurangabad has brought to light the sorry state of migrant workers in India

Early Friday morning a freight train mowed down 16 migrants resting on a rail track outside Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The migrants, frustrated with their inability to procure transport to take them to their homes in Madhya Pradesh, were walking—and not only did the rail track provide the shortest route, it also helped them evade the police barriers to prevent interstate crossovers.

This march of migrants was not an isolated case; instead it is something that has been playing out again and again throughout the period of the lockdown. The unfortunate accident has dramatically put the spotlight on the questionable conditions of a key demography of India’s workforce; the amazing irony is that the Aurangabad tragedy, as well as the aborted plan by the Karnataka government to make migrant labour captive, has played out in the week of May Day—the international workers’ day.

Stuck at the bottom of the occupational workforce ladder the presence of the daily wager is seldom noticed and, worse, they are often taken for granted—largely invisible. But for the lockdown, and the fact their struggle played out in public glare, we would once again have overlooked their normally hopeless condition.

Take for example the Aurangabad accident. Yes, with passenger trains suspended, rail traffic has witnessed a sharp contraction, lulling migrants into believing that it was safe to walk along the tracks. (They may not have known, but it is exactly what some of their ancestors did more than a century ago when they would undertake a two-month trek from Saran in Bihar to Kolkata in search of seasonal employment.) With the benefit of hindsight they were right in inferring the reduced risks, but wrong in assuming that they had been entirely eliminated—hence, it was an accident waiting to happen, a tragedy foretold.

By definition, migrants—mostly in pursuit of a better economic life—of all hues lead a very insecure life. As the son of migrant parents finding their way in a new city often in shared tenements, learning an alien language and coexisting with what was a foreign culture to them, I can vouch for the tough times we endured; though in retrospect we turned out to be the lucky ones.

The stories of most migrants do not normally have a happy ending. Especially, the seasonal ones. Migration scholar Chinmay Tumbe in his (must read) book, India Moving, estimates the seasonal migrants, who move out of their homes every year between November and April looking for work, to be a little over 10 million. So, in all likelihood, the migrants we saw desperately trying to make a dash for home may have been part of this cohort; given the onset of lockdown and drying up of economic opportunities, they must have simply advanced their return date—if indeed this is true, then the big question is how did the bureaucracy not factor this into the administration’s response?

The Union government in its submission to the Supreme Court in April had claimed that about 1.5 million migrants were on the move. This may be a gross underestimate. Last week, the Gujarat government alone reported that 2 million migrants had registered to go back to their respective homes; almost every day we read of skirmishes involving agitated migrant workers in Surat. So, clearly there is a problem and we can no longer live in denial.

The good news is that migrants are no longer invisible. The bad news is that there is no guarantee that they will continue to be missed by public policy initiatives. Implementation of ideas like ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ need to be accelerated, just like Aadhaar-linked social services—in an India that is so networked, surely services can be taken to migrants instead of the other way round. Alternatively, the dark fate of migrants will be what Bertolt Brecht, the German poet said about one hundred years ago:

Some there are who live in darkness,

While others live in light,

We see those who live in daylight,

Those in darkness out of sight.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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