Why migrant labourers are forced to return home

If you earned every day and spent it to survive, you will also be walking home, several hundred kilometers away, too

Why migrant labourers are forced to return home

Zaheeb Ajmal

Once the images and videos of the exodus of thousands and thousands of migrant daily wage labourers, who keep India’s cities and towns running, started surfacing from various nooks and corners of the country, some politicians, celebrities and others took to social media expressing their angst as to why the migrants were running away. Why are they not staying back when the government is asking them to stay back? Why are they violating the lockdown? It obviously shows a lack of understanding and empathy on part of these armchair activists who know very little about real India.

Having worked with migrants for around 15 months(http://www.livesonthemove.com) for a research project, I would like to pen down some points as to why they were forced to go back home to their villages.

1. No work, No pay

On March 25, several of us were very happy that we don’t have to go to office and we have the comfort of working from home. Contrary to this, it’s very difficult for migrant workers as no work means no pay. Since most lead a hand-to-mouth existence and spend the day’s earnings on the very day itself, they have little choice but to head back home..

When migrants leave home for work, their important agenda is to earn money through dignified work, spend less and save more. With no work, they have no way to stay back. Several of them live in a rented accommodation and will not be able to pay rent. For those who have saved some money, it is better to go back and spend those on their families.

During my work in 2017, one of the people I interviewed, Bhagat Rishi, had said, “Main kal hi Ludhiana se wapas aaya, waha koi kaam nahi mila, toh rukne ka koi fayda nahi tha, kaam nahi milega toh kaha rahega aadmi aur ghar kya bhejega aadmi.” Rishi is from Sargana village of Araria, Bihar.

Imagine the situation for people like Bhagat in the current scenario.

2. Can’t hoard essentials like the rich or middle class people

When the lockdown was announced, many of us in cities went to nearby shops and malls to buy and stock up on essentials. When I went the next day, it looked like the shelves of the shop have been ransacked.

However, majority of the workers can’t stock up on food or essentials as most migrants do not have the money to hoard stocks. Some of them who have been saving choose to send it to their families rather than spending upon themselves. They will starve even if the shops are open. So, they choose to go back home rather than staying back.

One of the migrant workers told me, “Several times, it is like we earn to eat every day. If we don’t have work on a certain day, that means we will not be able to eat that day.”

3. After all they are human beings

Since March 24 people have been sharing screenshots on their social media of video calling their family and loved ones to connect with each other.

These thousands of workers would like to be with their families in such a time of crisis. A four-hour notice before lockdown in a country of over 130 crore people sent them into a panic. They were given no time to plan their return. How can one expect such a large section of the population to remain cut off from their families and loved ones during such terrifying times? Being poor doesn't mean they don't love their family members. The Narendra Modi government ignored such a foundational premise of human existence.

Finally, the government, which had sent several special flights to China, Iran and elsewhere to evacuate citizens, couldn’t arrange free transport and food for thousands of migrant workers. Not only this, in Barielly, Uttar Pradesh, workers were showered with chemicals upon their arrival. This clearly shows differential treatment of citizens by the present regime.

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Published: 3 Apr 2020, 2:19 PM