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

The problems faced by migrant workers are not new or unknown. To address them, the government's policies need a rethink.

As a child, while playing in the housing society garden, I used to hear the stories that the maids and ‘servants’ from our housing colony used to share about their families back ‘home’ – the mango orchards, the lush rice fields, the spacious houses in the Konkan or other parts of Maharashtra. As one grew up, one began to meet other working people from other parts of the country and hear about their homes back in their villages. I would often wonder – why would people from the beautiful villages in the Konkan or from Kerala or the stunning hills in Himachal or North Bengal come and live in the slums of Bombay with its total lack of greenery or space or even a modicum of dignity.

It may sound strange and far-fetched to say that the huge exodus of migrant workers that India witnessed in March-April 2020 and now once again in April 2021 is closely connected with the ongoing persistent struggle of the Indian farmers on the borders of the national capital.

This exodus in fact underlines the farmers’ reasoning to oppose the three farm laws and that their relentless struggle is completely legitimate and that they have totally understood the rationale and logic of these laws and their connection to international corporate capital. In fact, there is a deep connection between the exodus and the farm laws to the four labour codes that the BJP government rammed through much like the manner in which the farm laws were rushed through.

It is necessary to tease out the different strands in these complex relationships.

The informal workforce in India

As is commonplace knowledge now, over 90% of the Indian workforce is in the informal economy, 75% of whom are migrants. The small percentage of the workforce that still remains in the formal economy is being pushed into the informal economy at breakneck speed. The working conditions and terms of employment of the vast majority of this workforce, especially in urban areas, remind one of the initial phase of industrialisation where rights, security and dignity were sacrificed.

By definition, work in informal economy implies complete insecurity: you may have to work 12 hours a day every day for the whole month or you may get just a few days’ work a month. The worker puts herself out; but that does not ensure a daily meal. But one thing is sure. If you do not work that day, there is no dinner for you and your family. That is the on-the-ground definition of the informal economy.

So it is difficult to fathom how someone who is at the helm of affairs in this country could impose a very strict, draconian lockdown in March 2020 with a notice of a mere four hours and a complete shutdown of the transport system.

Agriculture and GDP 

While the share of agriculture in India’s GDP decreased from 55.3% in the 1950s to 21.8% in the 2000s, the percentage of people employed by agriculture and its allied activities did not decrease to the same extent. It decreased from 62.8% in 1993-94 to 53.2% in 2009-10 and to 47% in 2015. This is given as a reason to indicate that the productivity of agriculture has stagnated and the economy has head in a direction where agriculture has to give way to industry and services, both in terms of share in the GDP and employment.

There is no doubt that there has been a huge agrarian crisis and those working in the sector have suffered immeasurably, as shown by the NCRB data on farm suicides and several other reports. This crisis relates to the political priorities and policies of successive governments, especially since the 1990s.  The systematic neglect of agriculture in government policies and budgets is evident, even if one examines these cursorily. A simple example is the lack of extension services to the farmers; earlier,  agricultural specialists would share their expertise with farmers in terms of crops, fertilizers and pesticide.

The attitude of the state to agriculture was dictated by the concerns of industrial capital – to curtail any possibility of food inflation that would eat into the meager wages of the urban workforce, leading to a demand for increased wages.

This attitude, combined with an entire gamut of factors like the fragmentation of land holdings, made the life of a farmer and hence of the agricultural worker more and more precarious over the years. It is well-known that about 86% of the land holdings in the country are below five acres, which makes efficient use of land and of other related resources difficult.

There is a persistent clamour to curb prices of agricultural products and there is a furore if there is a slight increase in food prices. However, the prices of inputs in agriculture – pesticides, fertilizers, tractors, diesel, electricity, other implements – that are mostly industrial products, are continuously rising. This creates ripples, either in the media or among policy makers or people at large, as these do not directly enter our budgets.

It is often said that ‘kheti toh ghaate kaa sauda hai‘ (‘agriculture is a losing proposition’). Yet even marginal or small farmers, representing 86% of the land holdings, cannot think of parting with their land, unless under total duress and as a last measure.

A farmer works in his field. Photo: Jignesh Mistry/PAIGAM

Significance of land 

It is often said that this attachment to land is due to emotional factors, that the family has tilled it for generations. That may be partly true. However, the most obvious reasons for people with land not wanting to give it up is what the present kisan andolan has taught us – land is a means of production. It is a resource that creates other resources. It is a living resource, one that generates ceaselessly. The other factor is what the experiences of millions of people who have been displaced from their land for the last several decades have taught us – there just are not enough means of livelihood or jobs to sustain those that have been pushed out of their survival on land or forest resources.

Stories of people displaced by dams, mines, highways like the maids and other working people who had migrated to the city have taught all those who still have some land that money cannot be a substitute.

The activist-farmers in the kisan andolan are telling us: “We own this land and we are farmers. We are our own bosses. If the three farm laws are implemented, within a few years, we will be servants, workers of the corporate bosses. We do not want to work on others’ land.” However, the way agriculture, industry as well as the service sector are developing, with capital-intensive, technology-driven production processes, with increasing mechanisation, increased use of artificial intelligence, even less and less labour will be required and jobs are going to be even more scarce. This is for anyone to see. A huge redundancy awaits all the sectors; the process already begun has. The main purpose, objective of this entire mode of production is profit at the expense of labour, at the expense of the consumers, at the expense of life itself.

Clash of two visions

The vision that the three farm laws have is of agriculture and other modes of production that depend on natural resources being part of a huge mechanised, technology-driven operation controlled by corporations that will need but a few ‘hands’ to work on it.

The possible corollary to this is that these corporations will be global in nature, with a few Ambanis and Adanis to give the local flavor. The ABCDs (major traders such as Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus share a significant presence in a range of basic commodities, controlling for example, as much as between 75% to 90% of the global grain trade) will run the entire operations globally and divide the products in a manner that is geographically convenient to the corporates, and not at all determined by the needs of the people. This could mean that rice and wheat may be grown in some part of the world and not in India for example. In India, just particular vegetables or fruits could be grown.

The present pandemic has shown us the fallacy of such global chains in basic necessities. One can only imagine the chaos that would have ensued if this design of the global corporates and the states, including the Indian state, had been put into place before the pandemic. In all likelihood, one would have been witness to a genocide of enormous proportions due to the widespread disruption in the food supply chains.

Migration and workers

This exodus of migrant workers, like the earlier one last year, tells us that there is something basically very wrong with the way development is being conceived and implemented, with the way we are looking at people. It is as if people who work, who happen to be poor for no fault of theirs, are not to be considered in planning policies. That it is alright to bypass them. That they do not have a place in the ‘new India’ that is being built; that they are a liability.

According to the Economic Survey of India 2016-17, there were over a 100 million migrant workers in India, many drawn from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They work in precarious worksites in sectors ranging from construction and brick kilns to rural harvesting operations. These migrations are brokered by contractors, often tied with debt, and studies have documented difficult prospects of upward mobility.

The Interstate Migrants Act has been in existence since 1989. Though not totally in tune with the complexities of the situation of the migrants, it does have some provisions that can provide some relief to migrant workers. However, over the years, this Act has been almost totally non-functional. Now there is an attempt to bring in a policy for migration. The policy accepts a lot of suggestions from the Task Force on Migration, 2017.

Migrants wait to board trains to their native places during COVID-induced lockdown to curb the recent spike in coronavirus cases, at NDLS Station in New Delhi, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Photo: PTI

The draft national migration policy

The new draft national migrant policy being framed by the NITI Aayog was instigated because of the urgency felt due to the ongoing crisis of desperate migrant workers during the lockdown. The draft policy favours what it calls a ‘rights-based approach’ as different from focusing ‘on cash transfers, special quotas, and reservations’. It acknowledges that migrants contribute at least 10% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Even so, these very workers work in extremely precarious jobs with no support whatsoever. The draft policy highlights the vulnerability of migrants to such crises and describes the experience of migrants during the lockdown as a “humanitarian and economic crisis”.

The draft policy talks about bringing together different issues of workers related to migration, including social protection, housing, health and education, which may have the potential to pave the way for bringing a harmonious working together of different departments and ministries.

The draft mentions the need for convergence across different line departments and proposes the establishment of a special unit at the Ministry of Labour and Employment which will work closely with other ministries. It proposes to set up new management bodies for interstate migration and stresses the need to improve the data on migration, especially data on seasonal and circular migration.

The draft policy also seems to recognise that while there are a plethora of legislative provisions on paper, they have not been able to afford any protection to migrant workers for lack of effective implementation.

It also notes the specific difficulties faced by tribal migrants, the complex problems migrant workers face in terms of their myriad vulnerabilities and the complex relationships between brokers , moneylenders and migrant workers.

Most of these issues are not new; neither have they gone unnoticed earlier. What is needed however is a regulatory framework and a redress mechanism that is tailored for the complex situations that migrant workers find themselves in and that is easily accessible to them.

A policy on migration is a welcome move.

A holistic view 

However, one also needs to relook at the entire question of migration from the point of view of the migrant.

Aspirational migration can indeed be an enriching experience. Distress migration begins on the wrong footing. That was one of the basis of the MNREGA, that people should get work closer to home, so that they do not have to disrupt their lives and uproot themselves if they do not want to, that people not be forced to migrate under threat of starvation or severe deprivation.

Distress migration due to dispossession of the meagre resources they had leads to nothing less than a desperate, precarious workforce akin to slave-like conditions, where real control over your life is a faraway dream. This is what the kisan andolan that has been braving the elements, the state and its repressive machinery for more almost half a year is pointing out to. It all boils down to our priorities as a people.

Rather than hanker after a $5 trillion economy, people-focused development is the only way if we do not want to face the fear of extinction through climate change issues and calamities, through more and more pandemics and epidemics. As it has often been said: There is enough in the world for what people need; but not enough for their greed.

Sujata Gothoskar has been researching and organising on the issues of gender, work and organisational processes for over 30 years.