‘Tyag’, ‘Tapasya’ and the long march of migrant labourers

Home less migrant labourers

By Sarfaraz Nasir and Absar Alam

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is a single family”), a maxim of India’s socio-cultural unity in diversity, is deeply rooted in her rich civilization. But in the recent decade, this maxim is being used frequently by the right-wing bigots to cover up the rising intolerance and exclusive agenda of Hindutva in India. This very ‘Idea of India’ which is about tolerance, mutual respect and coexistence has lost its sheen which is fiercely evident during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

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With the harshest lockdown, nowhere seen in the world, the government’s decision to shut down all means of transportation failed to deter the courage of the migrants to walk back to their homeland. Along with job loss, the spike of new cases and deteriorating situations in the metro cities (which is actually heartless city) left the helpless and vulnerable migrants with no option but to march back to their native places with an insecure and uncertain future. With more than a month of central government’s apathy towards stranded migrant workers, what is more hurting is the disappearance of the essence and spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, making millions of migrants feel stranger and unwanted in their own country.

Lockdown directly affected the large stock of migrant labourers and their livelihood. Official estimates suggest that 9 million people do inter-state migration and 28 million people do intra-state migration yearly. If we club the long term, short term and seasonal migration together, the stock of migrant labourers will be much higher than these official estimates. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are the largest sources of migrant labourers. Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are the largest host of migrant labourers. These migrant labourers used to work in the real estate sector (where the so-called middle-class lives) – including road, rail and building sites in satellite cities – of Maharashtra and Gujarat, and in the agricultural fields of Haryana and Punjab. Their return will eventually result in the ceasing of businesses across the sectors as migrant labourers are largely considered as the only source of daily wage labour supply.

Under this prolonged lockdown, a substantial slump in the demand for labour will have a negative impact on already surging unemployment in the country. Something like 27 million youth in the age group of 20-30 years lost their jobs in April 2020 alone, says the latest report of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CIME). The market runs on demand and supply modules. There is a persistent widening gap between the supply of and demand for labour. An abrupt and unplanned lockdown resulted in the shortfall of total demand for labour in the market. In addition, the contractors further aggravated the crisis by denying payment to migrant labourers resulting in hunger and emotional distress. Attorney General (AG) of Government of India stated in the Supreme Court that 10.03 lakh migrant labourers are residing in government-run relief camps and another 15 lakh are located in the shelters provided by their employers. But contrary to the government’s claim, millions of migrants are marching for months- without food, water and medicine.

The first round of lockdown was impulsive, unplanned, and in haste without taking states into confidence. This unilateral decision raises many questions on federal principles and ethics. This hurried decision created havoc and chaos where the same states, ignored for consultation, came to rescue and somehow managed the crisis in one or the other ways. Realising the earlier mistake, the centre announced the second round of lockdown after taking state governments on board. Then, some fiscal stimulus followed to keep the economy running. The central government, in the third round of lockdown, chalks out a plan to send migrant labourers back home resulting in the largest possible reverse migration in India’s history.

Prime Minister Modi, while addressing Panchayati Raj Heads on April 24, 2020, highlighted the self-reliance of the Indian villages, promising that his Government is likely to take steps to make Indian villages self-reliant. In his address to the nation on May 12, 2020, announced an economic package (worth 20 lakh crore) with a push for strengthening the local economy. He stressed on consuming goods that are locally produced. Thus, the government, realising the stark reality of reverse migration, is planning to keep them intact in their respective villages once they are back.

To make villages self-reliant needs huge social and economic spending. The government needs to have a preparation in place to develop the village economy which can only be achieved through a high level of wealth creation at grass root level which seems to be a long term plan. Echoing the words of noted British Economist J. M. Keynes, former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh reiterated that “in the long run we all are dead”. Therefore, the government needs to focus on immediate solutions as well.

The immediate effects of the cruel lockdown on the migrants are of two dimensions in nature. One is securing their basic right to live with dignity. Second is the right to earn for livelihood. Both can be achieved in the same cities where they are. But to do this, the role of the government becomes important. Nobel laureates Amartya Sen, Abhijeet Banerjee, and former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, writing in Indian Express, alarmed the Government that “unexpected loss of income and savings can have serious consequences… and…huge numbers of people will be pushed to dire poverty”. They argued that the stocks of food may be used to circumvent this pandemic. They also advocated the urgent cash transfer not only to farmers but also to landless labourers. On the other hand, distinguished economist Jean Dreze has hard-pressed for an enhanced Public Distribution System (PDS) of rations and immediate payment of MGNREGA wage arrears to overcome this situation.


Now, the situation is different. Migrant labourers are returning back home. To reduce their misery, the government must work with full potential in order to provide food, transportation and shelter to migrant labourers not only at origin and destination points but also at places en-route. If the migrant labourers are citizens who voted Modi en-mass, the government must treat them with empathy as an equal citizen of the country. What is curiously missing from the important mechanism of working of the central government is the absence of stakeholder participation. This seems to continue at the central government level. However, state governments may envision plans in participation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) so as to provide basic help to migrant labourers.

Coming few months are important for Prime Minister Modi as the world would be watching how the world’s largest democracy tackles the economic crisis at hand caused by the reverse migration of the workforce? These labourers are as significant to their family as for the greater prosperity of the country. If we really believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, then the government needs to stand by these dispossessed people with means and methods to protect their basic human rights.


Sarfaraz Nasir is aresearch scholar with Jamia Millia Islamia. Email: nasirjung@gmail.com  and Absar Alam is an Assistant Professor (Economics) with L. N. Mithila University, Bihar. Email: [email protected]