The echo of migrant footfalls and the silence on policy

There are four things that need to be done in the country in the wake of the pandemic crisis

Updated - May 28, 2020 02:28 pm IST

Published - May 28, 2020 12:02 am IST

When we hear the word migration, we think of Kerala and West Asia, or the United States and the West. However, the number of Indians who have migrated over the past decades to these geographies is minuscule compared to the vastness of the movement within the country. A few years ago, I came across an estimate of over 300 million for the scale of internal migration in India . This is nearly three times the official figures which are being cited now. The number is high because migration also takes place within a State, not just between States or across international borders. The estimate for China at the time was similar.

Across the world, every year, people migrate for work, livelihoods, marriage, seeking refuge, business and even peace of mind.

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A number that is growing

Last December, an economist provided figures, based on the 2011 national census, showing that the number of internal migrants had grown by another 100 million. Or that a third of India’s population — one in every three Indians — are migrants. The figures are even more daunting when one realises that many of them are from the poorer States of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha although Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana send substantial numbers while there are smaller groups from the Northeast.

Most of them are unskilled, semi-skilled labour or skilled labour.

Apart from anecdotal social and political science, the scale of the movement across India, within States, not just across inter-State borders is breathtaking.

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According to World Bank economist, Supriyo De, “The number of internal migrants in India was 450 million as per the most recent 2011 Census. This is an increase of 45% over the 309 million recorded in 2001. This far exceeds the population growth rate of 18% across 2001-2011. Internal migrants as percentage of population increased from 30% in 2001 to 37% in 2011.” The figure 450 million is more than double the population of Bangladesh, it is under half the population of Europe and more than that of the U.S. These are the people who with their blood, sweat, hands and tears, build this nation. And the central government, many State governments and many of us have let them down horribly.

They are the people who were given a four-hour warning of the first lockdown, which has been followed by successive extensions by the Centre. When they found no transport — train and bus —they chose to walk. They walked by day on the highways and they walked by night, they walked on broken roads to avoid police beatings and barricades, they tried to hitch rides on empty trucks and even cement dumpers. They rested by night, under the stars, sometimes on railway tracks. So fearful were they of sarkar and harm that would come to them and their loved ones if they were caught. That is the fear of and loathing for authority that ordinary people nourish in this country. But the love of home was greater than both. Ultimately this desperate longing for home killed a number of them, one group of 14 most violently and tragically on a railway track. Frugal meals of rotis , some vegetables and fruit lay scattered after the dance of death along with their many sandals and clothes after being mowed down by a goods train as they slept the sleep of the exhausted and then the dead.

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Use of the military

It is important to dwell on this because of some extraordinary, publicly expressed opinions by some who have advocated the use of the armed forces to tackle such situations. The idea has been that the military should open up its sprawling and efficient networks, processes and personnel. Such views were being aired even as stand-offs were continuing to take place, and still continue, between Indian and Chinese troops in Sikkim and Ladakh, thousands of kilometres apart, underlining the core tasks before an army.

A former Navy chief, advocating the idea the armed forces should be at the heart of a massive relief operation, said that “the armed forces have tremendous resources, they have the organisation and can jump in blind folded and render instant succour.” This is a laudable wish but spoken with casualness for the value of human life. It is not an issue of whether Army personnel have personal protective equipment or not — if they do, and these may be to handle biological attacks, should the Army reveal its strategic arsenal and also expose itself to huge risks?

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Such remarks reveal the usual knee jerk response to the use of the military during crises, as a first resort and not the last. Not only that it underlines a complete lack of comprehension of the complex dynamics of migration and why people leave or return. As the economist cited earlier, Sudipto De, said, “Internal migration, the movement of people within a country, results in a more efficient allocation of human resources to sectors and regions where they are better utilized.”

We have seen too often, and for too long, the cynical use of the Army for dealing with issues arising out of political failure to engage early on in ethnic strife, leading to bloody confrontations and the loss of life of civilians, soldiers as well as armed non-state rebels. We are familiar with the painful history of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the way it has been used to tackle insurgencies in the Northeast.

This is a time to decentralise political power and arm the States with greater decision-making capacity. India lives in the States, not in Delhi or State capitals. Our States need to be provided more funds; the Centre needs to sustain, support, emulate and reward/award those like Kerala which have done remarkably well in this crisis. It is not a time to concentrate more powers in an already hugely centralised and arbitrary dispensation.

There are four things which need to be done, as the flight home, the flight from nowhere, has shown to a waiting, distressed country.

Migrant workers |

One, relearn sustainable economics at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi not the NITI Ayog or the Reserve Bank of India — India still lives in villages and small towns not cities.

Second: rebuild the rural economy based on building the household. That is the key and the target. Use the Swachh Bharat network to strengthen cottage industries which have been killed by huge industry (which cannot work at more than nominal capacity); give the latter incentives to buy from rural manufacturers and thus generate rural employment, not migration or distress, so that farm incomes are supplemented. Equip and empower artisans with better skills, design, capacity and technology, access to capital and markets.

Have a plan

Three: formalise Work from Home and design a Migration Plan — support people to work in their States or near their cluster of villages so that they are not far from home especially after this wrenching experience where employers have dismissed and disowned them, governments have failed them and, for the most, non-governmental organisations and relief workers have come to their rescue.

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Four: Move funding from current planning which benefits corporates to States, panchayats and municipalities; in addition, increase allocation on health, women, children and education to 20% of the national Budget and release these funds to the States.

Sanjoy Hazarika is International Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The views expressed are personal

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