Migrant Workers Backbone of Industry, Deserve Empathy, Conducive Ambience for Livelihood

Labourers are an important component of an industry and migrant labourers are more profitable in terms of production, growth and profit. Primarily every industry focuses on low-cost productivity and maximum return. And for this, migrant labourers are the most sought-after in every state and in every country.

Migrants move out of their respective state in search of livelihood but for industries they are the cheap labour force that is usually exploited for low-cost production and maximum returns.

Those at the helm of affairs are least concerned about their safety and well-being. In most of the places they are exploited and always remainvulnerable to abuse and torture. The migrant issue in Tamil Nadu has once again raised the apathy of these workers and their pitiable plight. Both Tamil Nadu and Bihar locked horns on the issue of safety and security and empathy to the migrant workers. Assurance from the Government of Tamil Nadu has for the moment placated the volatile atmosphere but no one can for sure say for how long.

On the migrant crisis in general, Prof. Amitabh Kundu, Senior Fellow of the World Resources Institute, said, “Studies based on secondary and field data suggest that most of the Covid/Lockdown induced migrants have returned to their destinations, with the withdrawal of travel restrictions over the past few months. The migration rates have increased significantly in southern India over that of 2007-08 while it has declined in most north Indian states, including Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, etc. One would note that the differences in employment opportunities and earnings would overwhelm and overcome the factors behind short term crisis, increasing in north-south mobility, backed up by demographic factors like changes in fertility rate and age composition.”

Prof. Kundu added, “The total fertility rate of 2.0 in India has gone down below the replacement level which would stabilise the population in the long run. The states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, however, have very high fertility when all southern states have achieved replacement level fertility, the figures for Kerala and Tamil Nadu being much below the national average. Also, the southern states have an aging population much higher than most of the northern states like Bihar, Jharkhand, UP and MP. Given this demographic advantage of the northern states, the southern states with better employment opportunities would continue to receive migrants. One can, therefore, argue that long term trend in population mobility would be determined by these, although politics and related factors can bring in short term disturbances.

“Importantly, a number of state governments, in the aftermath of Covid, had passed ordinances or attempted to bring legislations to restrict entry of labour from other states. Happily, economic rationality took precedence over political rhetoric which is reinforced by spatial pattern of migration. It is noteworthy that similar or more serious incidents took place against north-eastern workers in Bangalore and elsewhere in Karnataka, forcing them to return but this fortunately was temporary.”

On the crux of the problem, Prof. Kundu said, “Vigorous attempts by BJP to make inroads and strengthen their base in southern states understandably is coming in conflict with the interests of regional parties that have been raising issues of erosion of local culture, values, history and of linguistic imperialism. Anti-Hindi or ‘anti-Hindutva’ of north Indian variety can in certain situations manifest in postures and incidents against Hindi speaking migrants. Strong economic interests of the industrialist and business houses have however ensured so far that these do not become serious threats and remain largely as rhetoric. Media investigations now reveal that the news regarding migrant bashing is false or planted. However, the question to be investigated is what prompted this and who stands to gain from this. More important question is why such rumours tend to have such credibility.”

On the way forward, Prof. Kundu stated, “The assurances now given by responsible functionaries to inter-state workers about their safety and freedom to work are extremely important. One cannot, however, dismiss the possibility of these workers being subjected to abuse in one pretext or the other, given the social-media led politics of the day. The Dravidian or South Indian model of development would have to be inclusive in order that India ‘realises the Asian century’, as stipulated by the Asian Development Bank.”

On the migrant crisis in Tamil Nadu, Syed Faisal Ali, senior journalist who worked for BBC World Service for 12 years, and was RJDGen. Sec.and member of its parliamentary board and its candidate from Sheohar parliamentary constituency in 2019, said, “No such incident has taken place in Tamil Nadu. Two videos, which have been widely circulated, have been found fake. They have been made with malicious intent by vested interest people. The Tamil Nadu DG has already issued a statement regarding the videos. Even then, Bihar govt sent a four-member fact-finding team headed by a senior IAS officer to Tamil Nadu. That team after visiting many places, interacting with people and local officials, has also categorically denied that any such incident of violence against Bihari migrant workers took place in Tamil Nadu. The whole matter has been blown out of proportion by the BJP for political gain and to malign RJD-JDU govt. in Bihar.”

Ravi Nair, Director of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, said, “According to the Economic Survey of India, an average of 9 million people were annually part of interstate migration between 2011 and 2016. The 2011 Census states that there were 139 million internal migrants. “Free movement is a fundamental right of the citizens of India and internal movements are not restricted. The Constitution states, “All citizens shall have the right to move freely throughout the territory of India; to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.”  (Article 19(1)(d) and Article 19(1)(e), Part III, Fundamental Rights, The Constitution of India, 1950)

According to Nair, the policies that help the integration of migrants are just not there. Migrants are victims of hate from local populations as there is no popular education to show how important migrants are to local economies.

Nair also suggested that at the bare minimum India must sign and ratify the following International Labour Standards if it is serious about safeguarding the rights of migrant workers like, ILO Migration for Employment Convention (Revised) (1949) (No. 97), ILO Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention (1952) (No. 102), ILO Equality of Treatment (Social Security) Convention (1962) (No. 118),  ILO Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention (1975) (No. 143), ILO Maintenance of Social Security Rights Convention (No. 157) (1982),  ILO Domestic Workers Convention (2011) (No. 189), ILO Migration for Employment (Revised) Recommendation (1949) (No. 86),  ILO Protection of Migrant Workers (Underdeveloped Countries) Recommendation (1955) (No. 100),  ILO Migrant Workers Recommendation (1975) (No. 151) and  ILO Domestic Workers Recommendation (2011) (No. 201).

“In the recent Tamil Nadu context, the controversy is manufactured to hurt the Tamil Nadu economy. The migrant worker from North India carries back tales about the better living conditions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This does not help the Hindutva narrative in the cow belt,” Nair added.

John Dayal, a noted social and human rights activist, said: “The issue of the plight of migrant workers, not trained or specialised ones and manual labour, working in states away from home is complex at the best of times. In times of crises, epidemics such as the recent Covid pandemic, natural disasters such as floods, and political crises and confrontations as in Kashmir, often in Punjab and even in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, also aggravate their situation, and often create a confrontational environment that can be stifling, if not entirely dangerous to life and limb.”

Dayal added, “Internal movement for work and personal reasons such as to improve the quality of life of the family and children, is guaranteed by the constitution of a federal country. Workers may or may not have political rights in their state, including the right to vote which they certainly do not have unless they have settled down permanently, but they do have the right to life, to the minimum wage in the state and good working conditions. The exact data is available but even by approximate ballpark figures, several crore workers from Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa work in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and to neighbouring states of Andhra, Telangana and Assam. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu in particular, they almost totally replace the local labour which has been working in the Gulf countries at comparatively higher wages.

“Working conditions are hard. In Punjab, I learned from my sources, during the sowing and threshing or harvesting seasons, workers practically live in the field through much of the day and the night. They are vulnerable when sleeping in the midst of all that stubble and sheaves of grain and straw. It has been described as a disaster to happen. It is on the political establishment and the administration of host states to ensure the security of guest workers if I may call them that. The other state in turn also has a role to monitor their health and working conditions and to protest to the host state government if anything is amiss. Politically, I think state and national political parties must work towards empowering these guest labour. Unless they get political rights, including the vote in state and municipal elections in the states while they live there, they will not get the weight they deserve.”

Dr.Maskoor Ahmad Usmani, Ex-president of AMU Students Union and Congress leader from Bihar, said, “There is no denying of the fact that there is a prevalent discrimination against Biharis across India. We have seen working class migrants of Bihar being abused and exploited in many parts of the country. No states in this case are exception. The prevalent prejudice and hatred for Bihari community must be vehemently denounced. But the concern over here is the political hullabaloo which is complicating the issue. The state government of Tamil Nadu under the leadership of MK Stalin has reached out to the diaspora, assuring them all safety by the state. The law and order is being maintained.”

“OpIndia, which is a propaganda news portal for BJP, has spread fake videos which further escalated the issue. At a time when there is a need for harmony, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned in creating gulf between the communities; this needs to be strongly condemned. I am happy that delegates from Bihar government have met the authorities in Tamil Nadu and all assurance of safety and security has been made by them and fake videos that were circulated are busted now. I think the government should act against miscreants,” Usmani added.

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