In Chhattisgarh, a Migrant Workers' Jury Is Hearing 'Pleas' From Government Representatives

The citizens' jury of migrant workers is hearing government officials, business heads, and others in an exercise of deliberative democracy.

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The memory is still vivid in the public’s mind: thousands and thousands of Indians, with meagre possessions on their heads and backs, trekking under the summer sun to their villages. The endured deaths, hunger and hardships after the cities they had migrated to turned hostile overnight and allowed them no way to get home.

In the sudden lockdown of March 2020 announced in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its multiple extensions since then, this country woke up to the stark reality of migrant workers – and the knowledge that a large part of our economy is crippled without them. India’s migrant workers, numbering as many as 10-12 crore, should sway huge political power – but that was not to be.

As these visuals caught the public imagination, some state governments announced “packages” for migrant workers as a knee-jerk reaction to the visuals: policy-making for public perception management. Then everything fell silent. Soon enough, they disappeared from public debates and their survival struggles became invisible once again.

The second wave of COVID-19 was a crisis mainly of our healthcare system. Even here, the visuals of migrants’ exodus from destination states re-appeared, but at a much smaller scale. In fact, many migrant workers had not ventured out of their villages after last year’s horrific experience.

After several months of silence and inaction, recent proceedings in the Supreme Court stirred up a renewed debate. It became clear that there is no enumeration, reliable database or registration system for India’s migrant workers; that itself became a point in the court’s final orders.

Also read: To Fully Understand the Migrant Worker Crisis, We Need a Larger Perspective

Some states, as well as the NITI Aayog, have also attempted to draft policies for migrant workers. Yet all these efforts to spell out better support measures have happened in the absence of numbers, and moreover, human faces put to those numbers.

This benevolent policy-making by distant onlookers is typical in the world of policy formulation – but it doesn’t need to be.

Deliberative democracy 

Civil society is familiar with jan sunwais where affected people present their stories in front of non-affected citizens, providing testimonies of victimhood for ‘experts’ to spell out their views on the subject. This week, however, an alternative process will unfold in Chhattisgarh’s Raipur – a citizen’s jury in which experts plead their case, whatever it might be, to a jury of affected people, who gets to deliberate and rule on policies aimed at improving their lives.

The ‘Janta Ka Faisla’, from July 11-15 this year, emulates the legal procedure of a jury. In a court of law, a jury is a group of people chosen from the general public to listen to the facts about a crime and to decide if the person accused is guilty or not. In a citizens’ jury, the jurors are again selected from the public, but to decide on matters pertaining to their own lives.

Court, law representational image

Representational image.

One such process took place in 2001, in what is now Telangana: a ‘Praja Teerpu’ on the future agricultural policy for the state of Andhra Pradesh. It sparked a huge public debate that led to the pulling out of the Department for International Development (DFID), Britain’s bilateral aid agency, from Andhra. Beyond that, the citizen’s jury is a tool of deliberative democracy that has not been well used in India.

In this week’s ‘Janta Ka Faisla’, the jurors are migrant workers themselves (men and women). They have been chosen in a stratified sampling exercise using a database created by the Chhattisgarh administration last year.

Also read: Here’s What We Know About COVID’s Impact on India’s Workers – and What We Can Do About it

‘Advocates’ and ‘expert witnesses’ will argue for various perspectives, and try to persuade the jury on matters including entitlements, employment at destination points, livelihoods at the origin, laws that govern labour and migration, integration into local societies, and the political participation of migrant workers. They will also advocate for differing macro-visions for the economy (bazaar), state (sarkar) and society (samaaj).

Among the ‘pleaders’ are officials of the Chhattisgarh government (from various departments), activists, workers from civil society and also representatives of industry. The jury will be assisted by facilitators or amicus curiae – an oversight panel of independent experts who will ensure that the process is being run in a balanced fashion, and an anchor for the whole process, a judge.

Thereafter, the jury is expected to retreat into internal deliberations, reflecting on what they have heard, and keeping in mind their own lived experiences and worldviews, to come up with a verdict. This is one effort to make deliberative democracy come alive, for the marginalised: To make the men and women who suffered last year recount the harrowing times, and this time, to make their wise voices count.

Kavitha Kuruganti is an Honorary Fellow with Socratus Foundation, and one of the organisers of the Janta ka Faisla.