UNORGANIZED ARMY OF MIGRANT WORKERS

S V Singh //

“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of towns. It has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of population from the idiocy of rural life.”
Marx-Engels, Communist Manifesto

It was 8 pm and 24th of March; “They” were glued to the TV sets. “Draw a Lakshman Rekha at your gate and do not cross it for next 21 days…” PM was giving sermons as usually but the chill went down their spine as “They” knew the meaning of this menacing exhortation. It was not the constitution of India that flashed in their mind then instantly but the image of roti. “They” rushed to the corner where that aluminum box containing flour is kept. It weighed very light as “They” lifted. The numbness intensified and the eyes grew larger. Coming out of the hut, “They” saw people rushing to purchase grocery but the Lala doesn’t give it for free. Hand searched the pocket and the emptiness was felt by the fingers. ‘Uff what to do’ “They” sit on ground holding their head in both of their palms and “They” then realized, the earth is indeed spinning.  ‘All schools, offices, industries will remain closed and no train, bus or taxi will ply after 12 tonight and there will be zero tolerance for the lockdown violations..’ as if the TV anchor hawks were let loose all around and these words were like steel hammers hitting on their head. “They” couldn’t sleep that night as the death was looming large on their psyche and it was then that the idea flashed in their mind like a spark; “Why to die here in the alien land, why not die amongst our own if we are destined to die. “They” have to move.”

The deadly journey commenced early the next day itself. There was not much to pack. All the ‘belongings’ were bundled in a single bed sheet and “They” were on the highway at 5 am holding hands of their progenies. Hardships and living on thin razor edge are their way of life since “They” remember but this death defying Long March driven by desperation was set to face unspeakable brutalities, indignities but being the only option, it went on and on. It was like a War Cry. “They” were hungry and got beaten brutally, repeatedly, chased away like animals on the way home by the police for defying lock down several times a day but the march did not stop. There were announcements that buses are arranged at UP border. “They” thronged there in thousands but only to be beaten again mercilessly as the announcements were taken back by that time. State callousness was unparalleled and unprecedented. The scenes on the roads were the replay of the Partition of India. Their determination, however, could not afford to fade as at stake was their life. Fear too fails to frighten beyond a point.

Who are “They”? They happen to be the most brutally exploited, crushed under extreme poverty, devoid of any means, destitute to the chore and lying on the floor of the social pyramid, called as ‘migrant workers. This strong army of the starving destitute is now estimated to be 21 crores strong.  They had their pieces of land, had their wonderful skills of the artisans but that’s too long back. They are fleeced to their bones. Everything they had, has been snatched way by this bloody system known as CAPITALISM. Their agricultural land in the village is exactly where it was as the land cannot move but the ownership changed. They encountered a need to be fulfilled and their land got owned by the ‘farmer’ i.e. the rural bourgeoisie. The products that they used to make as artisan are swallowed by the cheap industrial commodities. Hunger has driven them to the sea of slums in the big cities. They have lost everything in the process except their labour power. They always live on the razor edge, having minimum distance between life and death as a routine. There is no social security available to them, no fixed working hours, no job guarantee. They live in the filthiest of locations on the bank of drains, gutters. They are the most qualified PROLETARIAT who possess literally nothing except their chains.

According to IIPS Mumbai survey and 2011 Census, Urbanization percentage of total population increased from 27.81% in 2001 to 31.16% in 2011 and total migrant workers are over 139 million. Employers of migrant workers are; Construction 50 million, Domestic work 25 million, textile 12 million, brick kiln 11 million and so on. Their number is approximately not less than 200 million (22.00 crore) as on date after 9 years of the previous census. They are unorganized having no bargaining power whatsoever, low value, low end, hazardous work with unlimited working hours, many of them are made to work till they fall asleep at that very place of their working so that they could get up early and commence working in wee hours. Getting roasted there at workplace itself in the fire is also not uncommon. Their death didn’t become a news at all.  Distance between “source” and destination is such that they have to plan and save for months to visit their “own” place. Otherwise, they are thrown at the mercy of the bloodthirsty labour contractor who has “sourced” them and who keeps reminding them that they are alive today because he searched them source of their livelihood. 

Culpability Of The State

The first case of Corona Virus in India was detected on 30.01.2020 although it had become world headline by the end of December itself when infection flared in Wuhan city of China, causing several hundred deaths by that time. No notice of the same was taken by the government even after strict warning from WHO and instead of commencing strict screening, testing and quarantining of all the passengers coming from abroad at the airports itself, the government went on to have grand jamboree at Ahmedabad in honor of American President Donald Trump mobilizing lakhs of people. The game of toppling M.P. government went on unabated till as late as the oath taking ceremony of the BJP Chief Ministry at Bhopal on 23.03.2020. The situation of the spread of Corona Virus infection by then got precarious and was getting almost out of hand when a knee jerk reaction in panic of complete lockdown was announced on 24.03.2020 without having any consideration or planning of the question of life and death of over 22 crore migrant workers. No plan was even thought what will happen to these destitute workers who are already living on thin edge. This turned whatever was left of their life, upside down. Migrant Workers are unable to store the eatables beyond a couple of days at any time. How can they? They can never afford not to work. No job for them means no food. How can they be confined to the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ for 39 days of lock down at a stretch? Banging utensils or lighting diyas may be the indulgence of the middle-class tantrums who always have this vulgar drama of deshabhakti up their sleeves. For a hungry stomach it’s the most cruel and painful joke. No arrangement was made to supply ration to this 220 million strong army while arrangements were there in place for keeping them confined to their huts forcefully and to die of hunger. It’s, consequently, a terrible display of brutalities against migrant workers since middle of March. Demonetization was a terrible blow to their livelihood which also intensified and aggravated the already existing recession all around in the economy and robbed jobs from half of the migrant workers and which had left them half dead but his mindless declaration, of lockdown after lockdown having no planning to take required essential steps to feed these starving workers, has finished the job. The documents of the sufferings of the migrant workers that appear in social media are mind numbing. No sensitive mind can ever forget these sordid tales. We give here below just some of the ‘documents’ of their harrowing ordeal which is the big black blot on the face of this inhuman bourgeois state that appeared in the media if one could sustain the pain of reading this:

  • Migrant destitute workers taking their belongings on their head when reached Bareilly after travelling over 300 km were made to sit on the road and then the Yogi government police sprayed the bleach Sodium Hydrochloride as if they are insects and not human beings.
  • Children were surviving on eating grass in Varanasi, the constituency of the PM.
  • Milk got leaked from the milk container in Agra and it spread on the road. Dogs were drinking it there and simultaneously, a hungry migrant worker was also collecting the same for his dying child.
  • Hungry children of these migrant workers were feeding on the banana skins and rotten bananas thrown at the Nigam Bodh Ghat cremation site in New Delhi.
  • Making the destitute and exhausted worker crawl like frog along-side road under the sun by the police as General Dyer forced the people of Amritsar after Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
  • Forcing the starving migrant workers to bend down as a loop to become ‘murga’ in the open on the road so that people at large could see the severity of punishment if workers dare venture out of their jhuggis even if dying out of hunger.

The list of these inhuman, barbarous stories is too long to allow this monstrous bourgeois state to keep it’s real, ugly face hidden. According to official figures total 35 migrant workers actually died on the road while marching back to ‘their lands’. How many would have been consumed by the exhaustion will never be known.

Secondly, government can arrange the stranded citizens, the rich holiday makers abroad in several countries by hiring even chartered planes involving huge expenses. These sharks, in fact, brought this virus to our country. Buses can be arranged for the stranded pilgrims at several places including Varanasi, buses can be arranged to bring thousands of students stranded at Kota but absolutely no arrangement can be made for the crying and dying migrant workers, why? Why are the poor workers not treated as humans, citizens of this country?  Whatever is seen around, these towering malls, express ways, glittering shopping avenues, each and everything has a stamp of the sweat and blood of these workers. They only have made them all. Why were these starving workers subjected to such unspeakable hardships, tortures, brutalities leading them to collapse on the road in exhaustion? There is a monumental record stock of food grains of about 7.7 crore tons at the disposal of the government. All stores go downs and warehouses are full of wheat, rice and pulses. Another bumper crop is in the offing under harvest. It is difficult to store all these essential grains so direly needed. We see this stock rot every season in the open, hordes of rats feasting on it as the storage capacity is not adequate. Government also has the infra structure available in the form of anganwadi ladies and ASHA workers to help in distribution of these commodities to these workers. Arrangements could have been made but nothing was done. This is not ignorance, this is abject reluctance to do. No need of doing this was felt as the lives of these workers does not matter to the powers that be. This amounts to the criminal culpability of the Central Government and the state governments and these workers are entitled to suitable compensation besides all their dues, job, allowances etc. It is pertinent to mention here what Captain Amrinder Singh, CM, Punjab said in a recent interview to NDTV. He said that he had issued instructions to the farmers and industrialists of Punjab that they should make arrangements to house and feed these workers because, he told, once they go to their native place, they are not going to come early. ‘Where from will you arrange labour?’ He also told that he advised the New Delhi Government accordingly. It, then, confirms that these workers are stopped forcefully in their jhuggis only because once the lock down gets relaxed, they must be available at work. Let them die if some of them die!! There is already a reserve army of the unemployed!! Hungry worker can work even at Rs.100 per day!! These facts compound the crime perpetrated on these crores of suffering workers by their ‘own’ government. This is a sort of treachery committed against the migrant workers by their own government. History will record that. Central and state governments cannot escape criminal culpability in this matter. 

Failure Of The Labour Movement 

Each and every individual claiming himself/ herself to be concerned with organizing the toiling masses and educating them to fight for their rights, justice and liberation from their perpetual exploitation owe answer to these bitterly beaten, devastated and humiliated army of ‘Frontline Warriors’ for letting them down. No one can escape responsibility. They are entitled to settle score with everyone right from those who brought this mountain of miseries on them, from those who fashion themselves as champions of their cause and also from those who watched that sordid tale of their devastation and humiliation on TV like a soap opera. Who went to them to organize and educate them about their rights or to teach them, why are they homeless, penniless even after working to their bones day and night? Why are their children cursed to go to work and not to the school every morning? Why do they have to die first in every recession or disease season after season? What else are they supposed to do? What is their fault? Why do they have to go to sleep hungry on not less than half of the days? Why do they die like mosquitoes every rainy season? Where is their share of resources, land, buildings, homes, malls, schools? Why do only their children remain uneducated generation after generation? Till how long this bloody business go on? Why is it only their predicament of having option of dying of Virus or hunger now and then transgress into mass starvation?  

 Whether that whatever meagre is provided for the ‘welfare’ to this severest exploited segment of the society called as migrant workers is actually implemented, let us see. Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulations of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 (15 pages) aims to safeguard migrants. Chapter V of the Act is titled “Wages, Welfare and Other Facilities to be Provided to Inter-State Migrant Workmen” and provides these facilities:

  • Wage rates and other conditions of service of Inter-State Migrant Workmen
  • Displacement Allowance.
  • Journey Allowance etc.
  • Other facilities.
  • Responsibility for payment of wages.
  • Liability of principal employer in certain cases.
  • Past liabilities.

Next chapter VI of this Act directs Labor Inspectors to ensure its implementation.

On the recommendations of the Working Group constituted by Indian Labour Conference held at New Delhi on 20 & 21 Feb 2009, a Tripartite Group was constituted to examine the provisions of this Act. The Group examined various provisions of the act and reviewed the problems faced by the migrant workers, existing provisions of the Act, enforcement machinery, problems in implementation of the Act etc. The Group has submitted its report and the report has been placed before Indian Labour Conference held on 23-24 November 2010. All the ‘parties’ of the so-called Tripartite Group went into the slumber after this never to awake till date.

Then, there is also another piece of legislation; ‘The Unorganized Worker’s Social Security Act (UWSS Act), 2008 like a piece of decoration in the Statute Book. What ‘Social Security’ it has provided to these crying workers? These brave but ignorant workers only will awake one day and take account from everyone concerned and that day is not far off!!

Is anything out of this implemented even a bit? The answer is big NO. Is it not shameful to all of us who claim to have been working to end exploitation of labour by the capital, once and for all? It is shameful. Everyone seems to have abandoned migrant workers to their fate. Only hypocrites can refuse to accept.

Abandoned By All, They Fought

Surat & Baroda:  There are more than 12 lakh migrant workers working in the textile and diamond industry at Surat alone. Without any job, poor quality food being served in a humiliating manner, no prospects of working in future and stopped from going to their native places, several hundred migrant workers from Orissa, UP & Bihar had a desperate pitched battle with armed police of Gujrat at Varachha, Laskana and Pandol area of Surat on 3 occasions, 09.04.20, 11.04.20 and 14.04.20 in which several workers got injured. 70 workers were detained and 8 of them were arrested. ‘Keeping the migrant labourers contained till the end of lockdown will be a difficult proposition as Surat Police is facing a tough time in controlling them’ admitted Mr. R. B. Brahmbhat, Commissioner of Police, Surat. Similar protests were reported from Baroda and Ahmedabad in Gujrat.

Bandra & Mumbra in Mumbai: Thousands of migrant workers came out on road near Bandra railway station on 14.04.2020 and also at another place called Mumbra in Thane Distt defying curfew like restrictions due to lockdown. Police attacked these hungry and destitute workers with baton. Pitched battle ensued in which several workers got injured and over 40 of them were detained and 11 of them got arrested.

New Delhi/NCR: There were several skirmishes with police in Delhi/ NCR region. In one such incident the fight for food resulted in bitter fight which led to fire at 4 shelter homes. Police attacked brutally and 4 workers jumped into Yamuna in order to save themselves out one of them could not come back. His dead body got recovered the next morning. Again, the workers got furious seeing the body of their comrade and bitter fight ensued. Again, several workers were apprehended by the police under stringent laws. 

Similar incidents of desperate fight by the workers with police is reported from NOIDA, Ghaziabad, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kottayam district of Kerala and several other centers throughout in India.

Greedy, profit thirsty vultures of the bourgeoisie are in no mood to let even this pandemic of Covid-19 go unmilched!! The proposal to increase working hours from 8 to 12 is in active consideration of the government. Not only that, Gujrat Chamber of Commerce & Industries has suggested that in view of the losses suffered by the industry because lockdown, government should ban all trade union activities for one year at least. Labour have the opportunity now to respond to this knockout blow from the Capital unitedly and heroically with full prowess. Workers have to discharge their historical responsibility to bury this rotten, moribund exploitative system of capitalism along its collected filth of centuries deep in the ground. Option is between SOCIALISM and COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF UNIVERSE and this fact was never been so clear to so many people as it stands now.

“Every crisis signifies (with occasional possible vacillations and retrogressions), an acceleration of development and a sharpening of contradictions, the laying bare of these same, the collapse of all that is rotten etc. It is from this view points that one must regard the crisis…as to whether progressiveness and the useful features of every crisis are not to be find in it…every crisis breaks some and steels some…a breakdown of everything rotten and detrimental in the labour movement takes place, obstacles are thrust aside which stand in the way of revolutionary struggles, and the crisis steels men for the socialist revolution.”
Lenin, 1st Russian Edition of New Articles and Letters, 1930, p9

Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 1/ May ’20)

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