The current Covid-19 Crisis has the potential to derail all the gains of the immediate past in Bihar unless the government embraces this chaotic order and uses it as a stepping stone to redefine structural aspects of governance and economy with specific reference to the migrant labourers.
The migrant crisis that the state today finds itself is a consequence of dysfunctional and ad-hoc Labour department arrangements which were designed with a significant degree of indifference and apathy towards such labourers. This crisis has a pre-history in the pre-pandemic world as well, however, not eliciting any state accountability till now. What has become very obvious, if it was not earlier, and got reinforced through incessant media coverage in this crisis is that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have become the national providers of blue-collar workers in both organised and unorganised sectors.
While Uttar Pradesh government has responded with the garish calls for a ‘Migration Commission’, quite paradoxical for a state which has simultaneously abolished all the labour laws to attract foreign and national investments, Bihar must resist any impulse to over-bureaucratize migrants and their mobility, and succumb to an identity-driven approach.
However, it is definitely the time of the hour to eliminate the elements of apathy and indifference by ushering a clear break from tokenistic measures of the past, and adopt legitimate and proactive means to create a pool of skilled human resources. Involving District, Block and Panchayati administration rather than a centralised body of regulating labour can be a beginning point. These same agencies currently have a better socio-economic understanding and grip over the situation than any of the world or national agencies. This is where Corona-mobilised bureaucratic machinery of local administration should conduct a labour mapping of sectors, services and skills.
The primary principle should be to facilitate their employment and not to regulate it. It must be acknowledged that the moral responsibility of migration lies with the home state and it is the prerogative of Bihar government to ensure the well-being and social security of the workers. Today, suddenly when the Social media-class of people in India woke up the realities of migrant labourers and poverty often layered by caste and religious belonging, we conveniently forgot that we had become so used to the idea of cheap labour and labourers. Till then, it was easy to gloss over this malpractice by safely distancing us in gated communities from the proletariat of Biharis and Bhaiyas. It is our collective guilt that has been on display on TVs and Internet, and by criticising the governments for their mismanagement of the lockdown over social media platforms, Urban India wanted to assume a guilt-free pseudo-moral stance. The role of civic society and the questions that it raised cannot be discounted but importantly, the government, on its part must seize this opportunity to covert these Shramik Specials as the arteries of economy, employment, mobility, sustenance and cultural engagements with different states and institutions.
With Western and Southern States developing themselves as industry friendly investment destinations, there should be a Government to Government (G to G) outreach programme to engage with these states to provide socio-economic protection and care to the migrant population. Importantly, state-sponsored skill training and language training can also be rendered so that knowledge and cultural barriers can also be negotiated in the process. Technology enabled effective implementation of the One Nation One Ration Card could be another milestone to ensure the food security of the labourers and their families.
On a similar scale, Health Insurance and medical benefits can also be made available to the needy and vulnerable sections. Most Northern and Eastern and North-Eastern states also witness a crop-cycle driven or seasonal migration to both the urban as well as rural centres, it is equally important to mention that they also receive a significant portion of non-skilled landless labour force which treats itself to a supplementary source of livelihood in agriculture, real estate, transport, etc. in these areas.
A real-time technology driven state-wise and project-wise information window or portal can be generated to serve as a bridge between the industries and workers. This portal can also make use of mobile, message and social media technology to keep the workers updated about different government social interventions thereby encouraging them to adopt a healthy and meaningful lifestyle.
One of the biggest problems that the migrant workers face is that of accommodation in the swamped industrial nightmares of urban planning, respectful and hygienic housing must be secured as a part of the terms of engagement. Women, who form a substantial part of the working class often engaged as domestic workers, are the most neglected and highly oppressed section among the workers. Dedicated helplines, bank accounts, legal assistance and access to medical facilities must be pushed as standard practices for the households and business entities to adopt.
Beyond all this, there has to be due recognition of the fact that a major portion of the returning work-force has been fairly vocal about seeking employment opportunities within the state. Monumental development of adequate physical and social infrastructure to attract investment must be made a priority from here onwards. A dialogue process with the industry representatives must be started at the earliest. Land pools, access to eastern ports in West Bengal and Orissa and major urban markets through rail and road has to be worked out neatly to appear as lucrative destination. Food processing and agro-based industries can be given the right incentives to become the primary stakeholders. It is in this regard that the skilled and trained work force can also become greater assets by functioning as trainers and mentors, and thus enhancing the employability of the coming generations. This will also pave the way for intra-state migration in the future whose contours can be locally managed.
It must be simultaneously understood that these migrant labourers constitute a complex demographic and varying levels of economic and social deprivation. Any centralised and uniform approach is bound to have limited impact. Migration is seen as a legitimate right and practice for better job opportunities, standard of living and cultural exposure for the middle class and the elite, it cannot be stigmatised for the working class. As a matter of constitutional rights and progressive politics, the wage-earning worker has to be facilitated in her primary needs and employment engagements, and not made the instruments of regionalism and pawns of identity politics. In such case, the government must mobilise its machinery to transform the migrant labourers into capable and skilled human resources. This truly can be the reform legacy of a pandemic and the migrant crisis.
Abhinav Piyush, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Tagore Govt Arts and Science College, Puducherry.