Promise of free ration by Modi govt is a pre-election bribe to the poor in Bihar

Beneficiaries of Modi’s announcement of extending the govt scheme to distribute free food grains to 80 crore of India’s poorest to November-end feel it’s a ploy to fool them, especially in Bihar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Arun Srivastava/IPA

The migrant workers who were treated like stray dogs and thrown out of their work place are now the most sought after commodity. The rich farmers and big business have opened their gates for them and these poor labourers are virtually being treated like newlywed grooms. The labour of these poor workers did not deserve any respect before the onslaught of the deadly Coronavirus. But now the same people are providing them preferential treatment and according the façade of respecting the value of their labour.

The migrant labourers had to suffer huge insult and disparage, but thanks to coronavius pandemic, this has made the big business and rich people realise the importance of their labour, which even the left parties could not comprehend. The pandemic has left India’s poor workers without jobs and food. They were made to lurch on the footpaths of the cities and towns.

A new history of oppression and torture has been written by these hapless workers. Migrant workers turned serfs and were left with no future at all. But it was their grit and fight for survival that they are on the threshold of writing a new history of struggle. They were derided and despised by the political establishment and system. The political class deserted this huge population left them to fend for themselves. These people were nobody’s concern. They were treated like pariahs.

But one positive development was that the rulers and bureaucrats running the country could come to know their actual strength. So far an impression was created that India has only 26 per cent of population that are poor. But the pandemic shredded away this myth and revealed that not less than 70 per cent of the people are poor and do not have the required purchasing power to survive. The actual number of daily wage earners is not less than 40 per cent of the population.

So far only the construction labourers or those involved in MANREGA were being projected as people below the poverty line. But the pandemic unravelled that it is a massive population. Even the neo-middle class people are vulnerable, as was seen in the wake of the lockdown. These people had to sell their labour for survival.

Middlemen and contractors have already started invading the villages to lure migrants on the assurance of a higher payment than before. The buses bearing registration numbers of Haryana and Punjab are lined up at the far end of the villages. The labourers have also become conscious of the value of their labour. The job for which they were earlier paid Rs 4,000 are now up for sale at Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000. It is certainly a nice development. The labourers at least could realise the market value of their labour.

After turning their backs during lockdown, cities now want migrant workers back. Until the novel coronavirus outbreak and the consequent lockdown imposed by the government to curb its spread, migrant workers lived hidden from the public gaze.

Labourers who returned to Bihar from Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra and other places have started to go back to those States for employment. They are forced to go back as Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has utterly failed to come to their help. The migrants who returned to their villages nursing hopes of a better future are now returning to the places from where they were forced to wilderness. They are even not getting the jobs under MGNREGA. The government officials seek bribe for enrolling their names for a meagre wage of Rs 200. They had come with the high hopes of starting a new life. But it lies shattered in the office of Nitish Kumar.

The work provided under MGNREGA is mostly in land development, irrigation, and crop planting and peaks during May and June, before the monsoon season starts. “So the timing of the lockdown was the worst possible,” says John Dreze, an eminent economist. Tens of thousands of daily-wage migrant workers suddenly found themselves without jobs or a source of income when India announced a lockdown on 24 March. The cities they had helped build and run turned their backs on them, the trains and buses which should have carried them home suspended.

The Bihar Chief Minister during a high-level review meeting a week back had directed officials to ensure that the families of migrant workers are also linked to the Jeevika Programme and self-help groups. But this proved to be too late. He should have acted fast and long back.

His directive to officials to ensure labour intensive work to create job opportunities in the state for the migrants has lost credibility. The officials and his party men are least bothered of their plight. What was worst was the ill-treatment meted out to these labourers by the co-villagers. The police treated them like criminals and in most of the cases they were implicated in false cases. The labourers were also feeling let down by the extremely poor quality of quarantine centres.

It is already an open secret that the present situation might not have been created if Narendra Modi had been pragmatic in announcing the lockdown and imposing a nationwide curfew to halt the spread.

Though the Modi government as well as the Nitish government claimed providing financial and foo help to these workers, a poll of 11,000 migrant workers by the NGO, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) found 96% had not received any aid. These were simply lies. Among the reasons for labourers returning to work is the fact that most poor households have low savings. Upon returning to their villages, these savings got exhausted in a few days.

The people of Bihar and especially the family members of the labourers are angry with Modi’s latest address to the nation. Modi said on Tuesday that a key government scheme to distribute free food grains to 80 crore of India's poorest would be extended by five months to November-end to give relief during the festival season. He referred to Diwali and Chhath Puja, a festival celebrated in a big way in Bihar. Modi's direct reference to Chhath Puja, a festival primarily celebrated in Bihar, comes ahead of the Assembly elections scheduled in the state. The BJP leaders were quick enough to lap up the announcement as of Modi being connected to the poor. They said he understands what the poor suffered.

But the labourers felt he was trying to bribe and fool them. They sought to know where he was during these months of their sufferings. Some labourers also pointed out while he referred to “Chhath Puja” he did not mention of Id-ul-Zoha, which falls in July, or of Christmas, less than a month away from November-end. Usually the humanitarian aid is not announced in this crude manner, but undeniably this was the electoral compulsion that forced him to resort to this tactics.

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