The long march of crores of migrant workers might have become a political issue, but in the Indian context there is nothing new, except that COVID-19 has brought to the fore a crisis simmering for long. The erstwhile Planning Commission had discussed the issue way back in 2011 and the United Nations and other organisations have been highlighting it intermittently.
The issue of internal displacement (IDP) never flared up the way it has now, but even in 1950s as the nascent development process of building dams, be it the Bhakra or various Damodar Valley Projects (DVC), caused displacements of tribals and other people in various parts of the country. The political dispensation treated it as a non-issue. In the recent past, the Tehri and Narmada dams also displaced large numbers. Many, including former Lt Governor of Delhi, averred that people had to pay a cost for a “better life”.
In 1953, DVC acquired huge tracts of land, mostly from tribals in Dhanbad, Jamtara in Jharkhand; Purulia and Burdwan in West Bengal displacing 70,000 people and depriving them of land and livelihood. Reports state that only 350 such persons received compensation and jobs, others were given nothing. So the agitation for “justice” continues and had taken volatile shape in 2012.
The Hindi movie Hum Hindustani in 1960 with a young actor Sunil Dutt portrayed a new India for writing a new “kahani” (Story). Alas, that was possibly the beginning of abysmal deprivation that the nation is groping with today. No wonder the largest number of migrants in the long march belong to Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. The biggest state, Uttar Pradesh is not far behind.
In 2016, the United Nations noted that 2.4 million are internally displaced in this country. The Indian Social Institute says during the same period the development induced IDPs were 21.3 million – 16.4 million due to dams, 2.55 million due to mining activities, 1.25 million because of industrial development and 60,000 by wildlife sanctuaries or national parks.
These may be huge numbers, but it does not explain how at least 4 crore started trekking across the nation no sooner the lockdown was imposed on March 24, bringing the nation’s productivity to a grinding halt. Between May 1 and 6, the Railways ferried one lakh migrants to their homes by 115 Shramik Specials to Bihar, UP, Rajasthan and Kerala. Trains were inefficiently run and completing 40 hour journeys in four days in some cases. At least seven persons lost their lives in these journeys and over 400 are said to have died of hunger, fatigue, crushed under rail wheels or road accidents.
The tragedy is grim. Free India’s first Prime Minister, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of “enshrining the economy as that part of the nation which stands for the whole” made banner headlines as the Panchet dam was opened in December 1959. Few could believe then that this perhaps would not have been the appropriate prescription.
But at least President Rajendra Prasad had doubts, as reported in The Statesman on 28 December 1959. Addressing IIT, Kharagpur’s convocation, Prasad warned against neglecting the call of duty. In 1999, Planning Commission former Secretary NC Saxena is quoted by World Commission on Dams that about 5 crore (50 million) were displaced by big projects in 50 years of Independence. During Janata Party rule in 1977, a Labour Ministry Committee sought regulating inter-State migrant workers’ employment as they were exploited and paid wages lower than agreed upon.
The miseries of these people were not unknown. It’s just that nobody cared, specially across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, whosoever it may be and however powerful sees the reverse migration of being back in the emotional security of their village, as a bid to malign their regimes, be it in Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra, UP, Andhra, Karnataka or anywhere.
Strangely enough, the middle class, precariously perched on the edge of poverty line, has been most critical of this cross-country trek of labourers in extreme summer with bare minimum clothing and over half of them with chappals or even bare feet. This only reflects the apathy of the nation’s policy planners, rulers and elected representatives. It reminds many of people like Sundar Lal Bahuguna or Medha Patkar or Aruna Roy, who tried to raise their voice against the plight of the neglected millions. The nation certainly hasn’t come out with glory for making supposed economic strides while pushing down 81 crore officially stated poor in the wake of lockdown.
A newly-born nation in 1950s apparently had no vision as the poor multiplied, moved out of villages to eke out a living in shanties of metros, amidst promises of utopian progress like fertilizers, self-sufficiency in steel and rising needs of engineers in second or third Five Year Plans in official reports through 1950s and 1960s.
Displacement and deprivation has been constant. Policy bodies like Planning Commission were not unaware. The Budget documents do not reveal much for solving the burgeoning problem. Displacement has become the norm for any public project, ostensibly for prosperity, but actually for depriving those whose lands are acquired. It is stressing and straining millions of lives because for most it meant loss of home and livelihood. Prof AM Khusro was concerned about the rising number of poor in absolute, not percentage terms in 1999.
The present reverse migration has disturbed comfort levels of many – the industry, builders, diamond-cutters and all businesses. Political parties may show apparent calm but they are shaken. Perhaps, they are yet to realise the magnitude of the crisis. Most of the labourers jolted by treatments meted out to them in different States by their employers, police and administration are in a quandary. For the next six months they may not go back. And yes, conflicts in calm rural India may also rise.
The Supreme Court’s recent concern for their food and travel is a small recognition of the problem despite Solicitor General Tushar Mehta telling the judges “labour exodus was due to local instigation”.
It is no secret that Governments everywhere abdicated their duties for decades. The various free ration and other benefits announced now would neither be easy to sustain nor will it be a solution. The poor have to be self-reliant. There is need for a massive policy shake-up, integration of the poor in deciding future course, reorienting the economy, cut in taxes and overall lifestyle improvement. ‘Atmanirbharata’ (self-reliance) will not be that easy if the nation continues to choose to ignore 60 per cent of its population.