India witnessed a tragic irony last week when 16 migrants, part of a group of 20 headed towards their villages in Madhya Pradesh and who were hoping to board a “Shramik Special” train, chose to rest on the rail tracks: They were run over by a goods train in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district.
Ever since the lockdown was enforced on March 25, there has been ever-increasing uncertainty about the welfare, if not the basic survival, of the vulnerable sections of the society, many of whom depend on daily wages for their sustenance. This section of the population very often travels from poorer parts of the country to different states in order to earn an income, and have come to be known as “migrant workers”.
Opinion | Need a plan to help migrants
Right before the pandemic hit, the political discussion in our country was around the issue of illegal immigrants. There were protests in Delhi and elsewhere against the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, which provides citizenship to illegal immigrants — who are Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, and Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and who entered India before 2014. Now, in an almost dystopian twist, the debate is around the living conditions of the migrant workers amid the strict lockdown. Articles in newspapers suggest that the migrants have been betrayed. But have they, really? Even a bare glimpse at the treatment doled out to the migrants in the recent past shows that this is how they have always been treated. The current apathy of the states and the Centre shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
While in countries like the USA, people are pushing for better living conditions for “migrant workers” — which in their context would refer to immigrants, or people who have travelled abroad from less developed countries to the US — in India we have been unable to provide a basic security net to even fellow Indians. Here, being “Indian” is not qualification enough to be considered as your own. From the “Marathi manoos” movement in Mumbai from the 1960s onwards to the 2012 exodus from Bengaluru of people from the Northeast, there are innumerable examples of the hatred and intolerance displayed by “localites” towards “migrants”. Here, there are several boxes that one must check to be included by locals – of caste, class, religion and region – none of which fall in favour of the so-called migrant workers, unfortunately.
It would be unfair to put the entire blame on the government alone. If a government is a reflection of its society, then the current response of the government is only an indication of the position occupied by migrants in society. In a survey carried out by Common Cause and Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), the Status of Policing in India Report (SPIR) 2018, with common people across 22 Indian states, 16 per cent of the respondents said that the police discriminates against people from another state. People in the cities were more likely to feel that the police discriminates against migrants, with 21 per cent respondents from cities agreeing with the statement. On the contrary, SPIR 2019, which was a survey with the police personnel across 21 Indian states, found that 24 per cent of police personnel strongly believe that migrants are naturally prone to committing crimes, while 36 per cent felt that they are “somewhat” naturally prone to committing crimes. In total, nearly 60 per cent of the police personnel held the opinion that migrants are naturally prone to committing crimes, in other words, they are “born criminals”. What this indicates is that even though the people, overall, may not — to a large extent — feel that the police is discriminatory towards migrants, the police, when asked a direct question, did indeed display a discriminatory attitude against migrants.
According to the 2001 Census estimates — figures which are nearly two decades old — there were 41 million migrants from other states in India. Yet, the percentage of inter-state migration in India is low compared to several other countries. A cross-country comparison of internal migration rates between 2000 and 2010 across 80 countries ranks India in the last place in terms of the rate of migration. While it has been established through several studies that migrants help improve the economic conditions of both the source as well as the destination, in India, there appears to be a conscious policy restriction which deters inter-state migration. A comparative analysis of seven states on migration-friendly policies, compiled in the Interstate Migration Policy Index (IMPEX) 2019, ranks popular migrant-receiving states on policy indicators pertaining to health and sanitation, housing, social benefits, identity and registration, political participation, children’s rights, education and labour markets. Of the seven states studied, Kerala ranks the highest, while Delhi ranks the lowest. However, even in Kerala, considerable improvement is needed, particularly in areas such as political inclusion and non-discriminatory access to housing, the study notes. The lack of policy measures to ensure the welfare of migrants coupled with discriminatory policies surface in the form of much lower rates of inter-state migrants compared to intra-state migrants (or migration within a state). A 2018 World Bank study found that households with some form of identification proof were less likely to have a household member migrate across states, thus suggesting that inadequate portability of identification documents for social welfare benefits deters households from sending migrants across states.
What remains, then, are poorly urbanised states with high levels of inequality and discrimination. Despite the high level of dependency on these very workers, first we disenfranchise them from coming into our cities and towns. And then, in times of crisis, we do not let them return home. While the states and the Centre bicker over who will bear the cost of the train rides for the migrants, the workers will continue to take the journey of hundreds of kilometres on foot, and will continue to die. And we, as a society, will continue to not care.
The writer is a research executive at Common Cause. Views expressed are personal.