The Odisha Train Crash Behoves Us To Rethink India's Labour Migration Question

The parable of the Coromandel Express poses harsh questions for India as a democracy. Does the Great Migration represent a solution? If yes, to which problem?

Saakhi is a Sunday column from Mrinal Pande, in which she writes of what she sees and also participates in. That has been her burden to bear ever since she embarked on a life as a journalist, writer, editor, author and as chairperson of Prasar Bharti. Her journey of being a witness-participant continues.

Aadmi ko peeth nahin pet hi girata hai” – ‘a man falls not on his back, but on his stomach’ – wrote the Hindi poet Sudama Pandey “Dhoomil”. He belonged to the eastern parts of north India, where migration in search of livelihood has been perennial for centuries.

The recent three-train collision in Odisha has resulted in more than 270 deaths, the majority of whom were heading south from the poverty-stricken east. True, the world has known endemic poverty and migration in search of food since human history began. Yet, ever since our economy became globalised, the chasm between the rich and the poor has grown, exacerbating the traditional hostility among the locals towards outsiders who are ready to work at the lowest wages. As they migrate from the hills in Manipur, and villages in Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, millions of economic migrants have repeatedly been condemned and bullied as superfluous outsiders and stealers of local jobs.

Mrinal Pande

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Like the vast COVID-19 reverse migrations, the Odisha train crash has forced us to rethink the phenomenon of labour migration. According to the last available figures from the decennial census on inter and intra-state migration, 37% of our vast population is on the move. India’s migrant workforce constitutes almost 30% of the total population. A 2017 annual economic survey using unreserved railway travel between 2011-16 as a proxy found that the average annual interstate migration figure was almost 9 million, far higher than the figures thrown up by the decennial survey.

Who are these migrants? They are the ones fuelling growth and keeping our large cities running. As unorganised cheap labour, they fan out in the construction industry as masons, carpenters and painters; they work at construction sites building the new highways; within the city, they are the ones that clean streets, toilets and public spaces. Most housing colonies in the metros employ them for handling domestic chores ranging from cooking to babysitting.

Also Read: ‘I Don’t Have the Option to Rent a House’: How Migrant Workers Differ From the Urban Poor

The states that send out the largest number of migrants are mostly north of the Vindhyas. Uttar Pradesh tops the list, followed closely by Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Gujarat is an exception. Gujaratis, when they go out at all, is to travel abroad. Locally, most are absorbed within the state. Due to being wealthier than the average Indian, Gujaratis as domestic tourists have a reputation in the travel industry for being vastly privileged.

For example, in the newly branded ‘holy tourist destination’ of Uttarakhand, a major part of its own young continue to migrate to the plains, but those in the religious tourism business treat the Gujarati paryatak (tourists) with awe. They are mostly big spenders, and the temple priests, hoteliers and coolies who escort them on horseback are very pleased to have them as clients.

Uttarakhand has much less to offer to its own poor. There are thousands of abandoned “ghost villages” dotting the religious trails, proof that while tourism may benefit some, it does not address the larger question of generating better jobs and helping farmers contend with increasing encroachments by wildlife.

With such variations in financial status, migration for the young in such states has become a better option. But as outsiders come and settle in the state, xenophobic fears among the Hindu majority increase.

To consolidate vote banks, politicians begin talking of the danger migrants pose to fast-dwindling majoritarian locals. A demographic bulimia is evident today in parts of Uttarakhand, where panchayats have said that Muslim shops must be ostracised and mosques razed for being ‘illegal constructions’.

Similar bad-mouthing and attacks have been seen in Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat and the south against the sattu and khaini eaters from the north, even though the amount of money repatriated by immigrants to support their families back home is not large enough to bail them permanently out of poverty.

The new migrations have some new features too. With levels of education and skills rising among small-town, middle-class young graduates, the new, upwardly mobile bhaiya entrepreneur is visible on the horizon in IT hubs. These young people are smart and keen to use their skills in greener pastures abroad whenever they get a chance. But they are not as unwelcome as those that are once again ready to travel in the Coromandel Express five days after the mega-mishap. 

Our trains, ever since one can recall, have been under stress from budgetary cuts and the increase in the sheer numbers of people travelling in unreserved compartments. These millions, hanging on to door handles or perched on rooftops, are risking their lives to flee certain death by starvation. COVID reverse migrations, where many migrants who did not have money to buy tickets chose to travel on foot or by cycle, ended up dying like flies from heat, starvation or COVID have underscored that beyond doubt.

As life limps back to normal post-COVID, trains like Bihar Sampark Kranti Express and the Coromandel Express are once again the lifeline to penniless passengers. Few would recall that up until the 1970s and 1980s, the Coromandel Express was known as the Hospital Express because it carried the sick (sufficiently well-to-do ones) to better hospitals in the south.

Also Read: A ‘Migrant Train’, the Coromandel Express Had Been the Ticket to a Livelihood for Bengal’s Poorest

The economy today requires cheap labour on a larger scale still. The new migrations are easier because mobility has increased enormously within the country, with many more trains and new highways. The high-income, low-population growth states south of the Vindhyas are at an advantage here. They were already well armed with high literacy rates, relatively less crowded (and therefore safer) cities, and smoother administrations that did not impede investment. The good thing also was that the Southern political satraps, like the Southern filmmakers, opted for a free flow of capital and drew talent behind them without regard to caste, language or religion.

Migrant workers at Hingalganj, West Bengal leaving for Tamil Nadu. Photo: Aparna Bhattacharya

By the time the Modi government came to power, the South was already very well-networked in the high-growth global markets, especially in the IT and pharma sectors. Today these rich states, with their firmly-entrenched regional satraps, will mostly disregard the patriotic and casteist political jumlas coming from the north. But as the recent Karnataka assembly elections showed, they are quick learners and can and will make tactical use of caste and religion if need be.

Our moral philosophers pontificating in TV panels on the possible causes of the Odisha mishap have remained mostly unaware of the non-political dimensions of the tragedy, perhaps because they were safely seated upon terra firma. But the parable of the Coromandel Express poses harsh questions for India as a democracy.

Does the Great Migration represent a solution? If yes, to which problem? The problem of environmental degradation? Lack of local jobs other than serving tourists? The problem of abandoned fields and ageing parents? The problem of increasing human-wildlife collisions? Would a state like Uttarakhand be helped if the active half of its population and two-thirds of its young families left their endangered, unproductive fields and homes in ancestral villages and became settlers in the plains?

There can be no simple answer to these questions.

Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.