Almost half of India’s population is migrants, meaning that about 600 million Indians live in a place other than the one they originally belong to. For most of them, though, migration has become a primary survival strategy. Unless you lived under a rock, the hardships faced by migrant workers after the Covid-19 lockdown(s) were blatantly visible across the country.
Many experienced lack of basic amenities, wages, transportation facilities and were also further dehumanized in the quarantine shelters/camps, by police and administration. It included instances such as spraying of disinfectants on the stranded workers who were walking 1000s of kilometers back home. Such is their invisibility that even after death, the government refused to acknowledge their plight.
Multiple independent researches, based solely on media reported deaths, are documenting the figures to be between 200 to 970 people. It was nothing short of a humanitarian crisis for millions of workers whose daily wages came to a halt with a mere 4-hour notice, who were charged for train fares to reach their home state, then wait for the promised free transportation as it fluctuated on the whims of political pressure and contractors’ lobbies. Those who took the hard route of walking thousands of kilometers faced the wrath of ‘lockdown rules’ by police – all the while, privileged work-from-home elite banged pots from their high-rise windows.
With 10 crore job losses just during the lockdown of April-May 2020, 1.5 crore people were still without a job by the end of 2020. The pandemic and resultant lockdowns have pushed an estimated 23 crore Indians into poverty. While we showed a fleeting concern to their living/working conditions during the first wave of the pandemic, their precarious state of affairs remains unchanged.
For oppressed castes, migration also offers a chance at social mobility
The demographics of the labour market in our country is reflective of our social and economic realities. 450 million individuals work in the unorganized sector, and an overwhelming majority belongs to the oppressed castes and/or religious minorities. The last NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) survey placed the proportion of daily wage laborers highest among those from SCs (Scheduled castes), at 63%. Even among female workers, a 2012 study from 20 states shows that the majority of upper caste migrant women (66%) work in white collar jobs as compared to those from SC (18%) and ST (16%). Tribal women mostly engage in construction work, while OBC women form the majority of domestic workers.
These statistics are not merely numbers or a coincidence – social identity is one of the biggest factors of forced migration. Even closer home, my parents migrated from a relatively developed state not only for financial gains but also for social mobility and a veil over our caste that migration provides for, at the destination. Fortunately or unfortunately, it worked.
We have camouflaged ourselves and ‘seem’ Savarna enough with an ambiguous surname that has worked in our favour. What this actually means is that we got into a habit of saying ‘General’ to landlords, colleagues, even documentations and stayed silent while people around us talked about not mingling with certain classmates. We also picked up having separate utensils for housekeeping and security staff, or dissing reservations every time we failed a competitive exam. For most of my family, though, this veil does not exist. Hence, my relative privilege made me think that it’s time I remove mine.
UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) 2021 categorically states that 5 out of 6 multidimensionally poor belong to the marginalized caste groups in India. Generational and continued lack of access to resources forces certain communities to circle round a cycle of poverty and discrimination.
24-year-old brothers Ram* and Rahim* who could barely continue their studies for the need to start earning as young boys, share “Gaav ke school me hum 5 tak gaye the, phir na bache aate aur na hi teachers. Dusre schoolo me hum jaise log kaise ja payenge, isiliye chacha ke saath Keral aa gaye kamaane” (We studied till Class 5 at my village, after which neither the students nor the teachers came. People like us couldn’t go to the other schools, so I came to Kerala to earn a livelihood with my uncle). ‘Hum jaise matlab?’ (People like you meaning?). They looked at each other and smiled, their eyes telling us you know what we mean. Well, I did.
The brothers work for 10-12 hours, 6 days a week and live in a small room with 6-7 other workers. The building with about 20 rooms only houses single male migrants like them, belonging to Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha.
“Kerala kaise aaye? Accha lagta hai?” (How did you come to Kerala? Do you like it here?)
“Jaha paisa accha mile waha chale janeka, haina didi?” (We go where we get better wages, right sister?)
The closure of schools and a mere 2.47% ownership of computing devices amongst tribal communities particularly, meant that children completely stopped learning and instead saw an increase in minor adivasi girls at the labour Nakas.
Tamil migrants, majority from Scheduled Tribes sub-caste called Piramalai Kallar, settled in Kerala for years (some for two generations), living near the Cochin shipyard take us through the lanes of one room houses, 2000 people sharing 15 common toilets. It is considered a relatively better off place. Brick kiln workers from Nadia, West Bengal, on the other hand, hardly differentiate their working area and accommodations – bonded to their contractors every season.
I have heard people say why would they want to work so far away in such deplorable conditions. The statement fraught with deliberate ignorance does not seem to look that how, for men like Ram* earning Rs. 15,000 per month, 2500 kms away from his family and home is many steps forward than what he would have in his village in Saran. Farming alone is unable to sustain people without any land. Thus even if the working conditions seem toxic, the advantages outweigh the situation, in their opinion.
The history of humankind is a story of migration
The question of whether to migrate lies in the hands of the individual and is in fact enshrined as a fundamental right to all citizens in India. The goal lies in ensuring that the said migration is safe, dignified, and by choice. Not a choice forced due to distress but an informed one. Until then the statistics are nothing less than institutional injustice to people who form the majority – us Bahujans!
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality