” We are all born ignorant” said Benjamin Franklin, “but one must work hard to remain stupid.” And no one is working harder at it these days than the mandarins in Bangalore. There is no other explanation for the sudden order on the 5th of this month cancelling the trains which were supposed to take tens of thousands of migrant labour back to their home states as per the new GOI guidelines. (After a massive public outrage the order was withdrawn on the 7th.) But maybe I’m being too harsh because Mr. Yedduyirappa generally knows which side of his bread is buttered ( it is usually both sides). It is a remarkable coincidence that the order was issued immediately after his meeting with the builder’s lobby- Real Estate Development Association of India. It is self evident that, if the labour left, all construction activity would grind to a halt. Profits would plummet and that would have spin offs for the politics of Karnataka too, for it’s money that makes the mare go round, after all. Other states, including Tamil Nadu, appear to be following his lead.
It goes without saying that this is hostage taking, and a clear violation of the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act 1976- the labour is being held against their will, not because of the pandemic, since the GOI has allowed them to be repatriated and other states are sending them back; they are being denied their basic freedom and right to choose because the state wants them to serve the purpose of corporate profits, which is the classic definition of bonded labour. Or, as Yogendra Yadav put it correctly, modern slavery. No doubt someone, living in hope, will approach the Supreme Court but that too would be a vain hope. The court, in a petition by Harsh Mander, has already laid down a spanking new definition of right to life and dignity- two meals a day, take it or leave it. Man lives by bread alone.
But, really, we should not be surprised: Mr. Yeddyurappa’s order is consistent with the approach of the central government towards the 130 million migrant labour in India, all of whom are representative of rural India, part time kisans, part time labour. Which in turn accurately reflects policy making in India since 1990: focus almost exclusively on urban India and industries, Gandhi’s villages and agriculture can take care of themselves. After all, they do not generate the rupee surpluses needed to grease the wheels of neo liberal capitalism and politics; their function is to deliver the votes every five years on cunningly devised caste algorithms. All the fruits of development have gone to urban India- 400 million people there produce 84% of the country’s GDP, the 800 million in Bharat only 16%.
All industries, educational institutions, hospitals, corporate offices are in the towns and cities. To be fair, Congress govts in the past did make some feeble attempts to empower our villages and extend the charter of rights to their populations: the Panchayti Raj Act, Right to Education, Right to Food, MNREGA, Mid day meals, Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan, stringent environmental regulations. Though much was found lacking in their implementation, at least the intention showed some realisation of the desperate plight of rural India. But the present government, in its pathological quest for “ease of business” and brownie points at Davos, has turned the clock back.
Enforced digitalisation has deprived millions of their dues, welfare schemes are grossly under funded, retrograde agriculture policies, failure to reform APMCs and obsession to keep food prices low have ensured that while urban India prospers the rural sector remains more or less exploited, with 12000 farmers committing suicide every year. While India grew at 7% ( before the pandemic) agriculture grew at an average of about 2.5% only. We will spend Rs. 100,000 crores to build Smart Cities but will do nothing to upgrade our villages, other than providing a few toilets which don’t work because there is no water, and LPG cylinders which 80 % of the village households cannot afford. We will increase prices of petrol and diesel, liquor and cars, charge all kinds of cesses and tolls,but keep a tight rein on agricultural produce because inflation has to be kept under check. On every front the rural sector has been short changed.
For decades now we have been exploiting the natural resources of the villages to fatten industries and cities: appropriating their rivers, chopping down their forests, acquiring their lands, displacing 50 million people since 1947. Environmental protection laws have been diluted to make these depredations easier. The PESA ( Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996) which was meant to give self governance to, and empower, Gram Sabhas remains more or less on paper because both the central and state govts are unwilling to give village units the power to decide on projects coming up in their areas. The 130 million migrant labour is the cumulative result of these distorted policies. But at least these economic refugees had jobs in cities, SMEs, construction projects to support their families back home- till 2016.
Two monumental surgical strikes took care of that: demonetisation and GST. And now the military style implementation of the lock down. But this time India’s pampered, gated- colony middle classes too made common cause with a callous government to expel the migrants from their cities. Those who had literally built a modern India with their own hands were now treated like pariahs, like the Typhoid Mary- reviled, beaten up by police, branded as carriers of the virus, hosed down with disinfectants like cattle, confined in unhygienic camps, denied the means to travel back to their villages.
Our rulers and elite would have done well to have listened to Bob Dylan- ” when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.” And those who had lost everything- except their dignity, a concept alien to a capitalist society and a callous government- started WALKING back. In small groups first, then in droves, then in their lakhs, back to an uncertain future but a milieu that at least cared, proving wrong an increasingly disconnected Supreme Court that equates the right to life to a loaf of bread. How many have died/ will die on this journey will never be told to us.
But, with economic activity now set to resume, the tables have now turned, the tube light in the PMO has started flickering- how will industry return to normal without these wretches? The largest number of migrant labour used to be employed in the five most industrialised states- Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu. How will the kulaks of Punjab and the orchardists of Himachal harvest their crops without labour? How will the real estate sector in Gurgaon, Noida and Bangalore now build its over priced buildings? How will our cities run without maids, drivers, rehri-wallahs, security guards, delivery boys? In short, how do you sustain this capitalist bubble without the millions you have just thrown out?
It is this late realisation which had prompted Mr. Yediurappa, and other opportunists of his ilk, to cancel the trains and create other impediments to their return. The boot is now on the other foot however, and this boot is headed away from our cities and their industrial heartlands. Neo liberal India is now desperate for them to come back, but continues to repeat its mistakes, focusing on the importance of capital rather than on the welfare of labour. Beginning with UP, where most undesirable things originate, states have now started suspending laws made by previous governments to ensure the welfare and non-exploitation of labour.
But the migrants are not coming back, at least not for the next six months or a year, deferring indefinitely our promised tryst with a five trillion dollar economy. The battle is truly on between Bharat and India, but, for the first time since independence, the terms of trade are in favour of the former. The latest employment figures for April released by CMIE bear this out in no uncertain terms. It states that since February 114 million have lost their jobs, one of every four Indians. Every sector has been bleeding jobs- SMEs, entrepreneurs, salaried class. But there has been an increase of 5.8 million jobs in the agricultural sector ! Even the Niti Ayog should be able to grasp the significance of this.
In a contrarian way, it appears to me that COVID and the forced exodus of the migrants may just be the best thing to have happened to our rural India, if only our policy makers would read the writing on the wall. As the well known economist Ila Patnaik recently said in an interview, businesses will now relocate and go where it is safer- our metros are no longer safe, they are hot spots of contagion and will remain so for some years; their abundant labour force is no longer available. Our villages are safer, have the natural resources needed for industry, and 430 million workers (2011 census) who now want jobs closer to home. It’s a no-brainer for industry, even if its incomprehensible to the govt. But there are signs that things may be changing- Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have started allowing private mandis in rural areas and small towns. If the mandis come then so will the infrastructure- food processing units, warehouses, cold storages, transport companies, Big Basket and Grofers. If our villages finally become the units for planning and development, this would be a more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable model than the avaricious one we have today. Then the migrants of today would finally occupy their rightful place in the scheme of things. And nobody would have to to die on railway tracks in the middle of the night in their quest for a little humanity and dignity- and a piece of bread:
The family which was carrying the sorry chapati above was not the migrant, actually. As Ravish Kumar put it so expressively, we, who also came from these villages just a couple of generations ago, are the real migrants, stuck in our heartless gated colonies, our roots severed. The real Bharat has gone back to its home- and perhaps a better life- in the villages. One wishes them well.