S V Singh //
Heart wrenching tales, each more gory than the previous one, of the atrocities, the migrant workers were subjected to, don’t cease coming. The trail of their death and devastation is unbearable to fathom to any sane and sensitive mind, to any living individual. Newer and newer scripts of their colossal sufferings are appearing as historical documents every moment, day and night. One gasps for breath to express one’s feelings after watching the scenes on the roads throughout the country. This is never witnessed before since partition of India in 1947. “desh mazaduron ke tyag aur tapasya ko hamesha yaad rakhega…” (Nation will always remember worker’s sacrifice and selflessness), the statement made by the PM in his national broadcast on TV on 12th of May is the most insensitive and irresponsible as if rubbing salt on wounds. Migrant workers are not doing any tyag aur tapasya, they have no luxury to do that. They are pushed to the brink and are left with no option but grapple in a desperate life and death question by the government of their ‘own’. Historical injustice meted out to the migrant workers by the state, reveals following facts:
1. Migrant Workers Are Treated As Slaves:
Taking advantage of the post facto wisdom, we can now find out what, actually, happened with migrant workers. Let us examine objectively, this saga of monumental callousness and apathy of the government and the unspeakable brutalities and insensitivities to which crores of poor, marginalized and hardworking migrant workers were subjected to, not for days or weeks but for months together. Post 23rd March lock down developments suggest that it was not that crores of migrant labor got stranded innocently. It cannot be true that the government was unaware of their number. Statistical and labor departments have each and every data available with them. Intention of the government since beginning was to keep them confined to their jhuggis by force so that they remain available as and when required after the pandemic ends. Workers would also have agreed not to leave provided they were paid their salary as usual, were provided with the rent of their accommodation, necessary food items like wheat, rice, pulses, oil etc. (not the stale cooked khichri in polythene pouches) were delivered to their place of living and also some hard cash was put into their accounts to take care of their daily essential needs. Absolutely no need was felt for this life saving mechanism hence no arrangements were made. This led the destitute workers to desperation as fear of dying of hunger got real and imminent. Even then, callous attitude and criminal colossal insensitivity to human life continued, and no arrangements were made for their journey back home and option of forcing them to their houses with brutal force was exercised throwing all norms of civility out of the window. Desperate migrant workers braved the worst onslaught on their lives and decided to embark on the historical Long March on foot as a last resort thereby defying and challenging the state power. Even after that there was no letup in state insensitivity and it was not that the wisdom dawned on the government, it was, actually, result of the public outcry on the social media that drove the state to accede to allow literally crying workers to go home and decided to run ‘some’ trains to ferry them. This ‘gesture’ of the government, however, further exposed its real character as revealed by the infamous train story. Google enlightens that Indian Railways has the capacity to run total 16000 passenger trains in a day. Respecting physical (not social) distancing, a train can accommodate 1200 passengers in place of normal capacity of 2080 passengers. All the trains are lying parked in yards at present. Trains run on diesel and electricity. Diesel is available at the cheapest ever rates after tax deduction and electricity is also lying unused these days as all industries are closed. As it is, these trains are lying idle and not earning anything. Salary and other expenses are being paid as usually so no extra amount would have been spent on running this entire fleet. Nation, therefore, has the capacity to ferry 4.5 crore passengers to the length and breadth of the country within 48 hours. This option could have been exercised by the government in case it has even minimum concern to its own toiling workers. There was no reason, whatsoever, not to consider this option without wasting a single minute as the millions and millions of poor workers were either dying of hunger or were forced to move on the highways endlessly like living dead. Hundreds of lives could have been saved. Entire expenses for safe and secure journey all these migrant workers including their en route food and fare would have amounted less than the written off amount of just one loan account of a Corporate. Not only that, this gesture would have comforted the desperate workers and healed their wounds and would have left them keen and willing to return back after the end of this deadly pandemic. But true to its real character, the government choose to remain deaf and dumb in ‘let them go to hell’ mode. Even when the public outcry made it impossible for them to remain in inertia and the government was left with no option but to allow trains, the number of trains was kept at minimum like a token in face of the enormous number of passengers, with the same criminal intention that they should not succeed in leaving their place of work. Conditions attached to this project, fare and other formalities made most of the workers ineligible. Not only that, TV reports on NDTV showed the visuals that there was no drinking water, no light available in the Shramik Special trains, even the fans were not running what to talk of food. One unique situation was then witnessed which has never happened in past. Not only one odd train but more than 40 trains took bizarre routs to reach their destination for example train from Mumbai bound to Gorakhpur actually reaching Kharagpur!! Some reached even South India. The journey that could have taken 20 hours took as many as 90 hours and workers, as usually, remained without food, water, without even running fans during this scorching heat. Hundreds of workers succumbed to this level of criminal apathy of the government. Why shouldn’t the railway minister be charged for these deaths which are actually institutional murders. There is no explanation or accountability. The criminal insensitivity of the state with regards to reverse migration of workers is so comprehensive that even when some state governments made arrangements to provide buses up to the border of their states, these crying workers were stranded on the borders for days together as if they are trying to flee the country or they are venturing into an alien land. The National Disaster Management Act 2005 empowers Central Government to intervene in any of the state jurisdiction matter but no instructions or guidance were issued to the states to ensure safe passage to the migrant workers moving miles and miles, day and night empty stomach, empty pocket.
A helpless person left to his fate to die by the state looks up to the Supreme Court to seek some trace of justice. Such hopes and cries of desperation of millions of workers stand smashed to dust as the Supreme Court could find time for this unprecedented human disaster only on 28th of May when public outcry was getting wild and 10 of the most renowned lawyers wrote stinging letter to the court. Solicitor General of India, Mr. Tushar Mehta’s statement in Supreme Court that there is no need to large scale arrangements for migrant worker’s travel as many of them are opting not to go back now as the industries are opening up. So, this was the real intention of the government that migrant workers can be kept confined to their place of working by force as they are not in a position to pose any threat to the government. These workers are destined to leave their villages again as they were uprooted previously by the capitalist mode of production in agriculture sector in vogue since 1947 but put on top gear by the neo liberal policies unleashed since 1991. Devoid of any means of production of their own, coupled with the brutal exploitation and humiliation every moment by the suffocating caste system in the rural life will again force them move to urban centers undoubtedly once again.
First denying survival to the workers and then forcing them to stay back lead to the chilling conclusion that the migrant workers were treated like slaves/ bonded labor. They should remain available whenever the wheels of the industry start moving. They are extremely poor, already living on margins, unorganized hence pose no threat to the government. They can be kept confined to their huts forever by application of brutal force. They are too many in number, reserve army of the unemployed is too large to make any difference even if hundreds of them die in the process. This brazen act of the government holds the state culpable in a crime of ‘bonded labor’ and migrant workers are entitled to suitable compensation. Article 23 of the Constitution of India prohibits forced labor and considers it as an offence punishable under the law. The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1976 makes all forms of bonded labor illegal. Anyone who compels another person to render any bonded labor is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees. This act of the Indian State is also violation of the Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 of the ILO.
2. Even Robbers Helped But Their ‘Own’ Government Didn’t:
Munna from Lucknow, UP worked in a factory at Rohtak, Haryana. First lock down was announced at 8 PM on 24.03.2020 and the factory was locked down. Munna, his wife and 2 children survived on whatever meagre amount they were paid by the owner. During the 2nd lock down, there commenced a month of Ramadan and Muslim neighbors helped them with food to survive. The family was now having only one meal in the evening. No money in hand, no help coming from anywhere, surviving on just one meal and waiting every day since morning for that to arrive daily, living on someone’s mercy became too much on them to bear. They, finally, decided to go home on their bicycle on 10th May. Somewhere on the Agra Lucknow Expressway they fell asleep only to be awakened by dacoits at 1 am. Munna, having tears in his eyes, promptly, handed over their only property left, an old mobile. The dacoits searched them and could not find a single penny. The little boy then started crying, he had not eaten anything the whole day. Their pain brought tears to the eyes of the robbers. They, then, put some 500-rupee notes on the tiny hand of the boy and said, “Please have meal somewhere and reach home safe. We can’t withstand your ordeal, we know, how much the poor workers are suffering these days.” Munna counted afterwards and these were 5000 rupees. People refused stubbornly to be divided on religious lines and so many of them along the highways helped their unknown suffering countrymen in all possible ways, by offering them water, food, fruits even chappals but their ‘own’ government remained insensitive like a stone.
3. Not Capital But Workers Are The Drivers Of Economy:
Migrant workers are subjected to unspeakable hardships, colossal brutalities during last 2 months. Heart wrenching scenes one defying the other in severity refuse to fade away from the psyche of any living human being whose sensibilities are not drained away by serving to this inhuman system known by the name of CAPITALISM. The sordid tales are too ghastly and too many to enumerate. One feels like repeating these sentences in every paragraph. The roads of the nation are drenched in the blood of workers. Total number of the perished will never be known but over 600 hundred of them have died ‘officially’ while on the road to reach home. One question is, however, settled once and for all that it is not the capital but the labor which is driving the economy, though workers have paid literally with their life for that. Capitalists and their management team, the government, knew this reality very well and that is the reason, these workers are not being allowed to leave. Entire heap of constant capital (land, building, plant machinery, raw material) will keep rotting if the workers do not lay their hands to it. ‘Working from home’ is also not an option here. Worker has to be physically present at the place of production to cause production. The real producer, therefore, is the worker. As the lust of the capitalist to maximize profit is never satiated, it has to be not only the worker but the migrant worker only. Migrant worker, driven to the thin edge of life and death and turned to pauper by systemic exploitation for long, is ready to work even half fed, half clad. The ‘necessary labor time’ in case of migrant workers is the least and hence the ‘surplus labor time’ is the highest as even the minimum wage is denied to them. There are no fixed hours of working in the case of migrant workers, they are, sometimes, required to work till they fall asleep at their place of work itself because nothing matters to a capitalist but profit, more profit, maximum profit. Capital transforms the capitalist into a blood sucker dehumanized loath of blood and muscle. This is not new, it has been the history of capital and conditions of many of the migrant workers, particularly, those working as house maids and in tiny units resemble the working conditions in textiles units of England during 1860s:
“William Wood, 9 years old, was 7 years and 10 months when he began to work. He “ran moulds” (carried ready moulded articles into the drawing- room, afterwards bringing back the empty) from the beginning. He came to work everyday in the week at 6 am and left off at 9 pm. “I work till 9 o’ clock at night 6 days in a week. I have done so 7 or 8 weeks.” Fifteen hours of labor for a child 7 year’s old. J. Murray, 12 years of age says, “I turn jigger and ran moulds. I came at 6, sometimes I come at 4. I worked till night last night, till 6 o” clock in the morning. I have not been in bed since the night before the last. There were 8 or 9 other boys working last night. All but one has come this morning. I get 3 shillings and six pence. I do not get anymore for working at night. I worked 2 nights last week.” Fernyhough, a boy of ten: “I have not always an hour (for dinner). I have only half an hour sometimes; on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”
Children’s Employment Commission (England), pp 16,18,19.
Karl Marx, Capital, vol I
The longer are the working hours, more is the degree of exploitation, higher is the profit and happier are the capitalists and their management committee, the government. The equation is short and simple. What is Capital, otherwise?
“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.
If the labourer consumes, his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”
Karl Marx, Capital, vol I, p. 225
What will happen if migrant workers are not there? The answer is, nothing will happen, quite literally!! No construction work will take place at all, not a single brick will be laid. As the sweeper, labor, mason, painter, carpenter, plumber, electrician, all are migrant workers only. No ‘maid’ will be available to sweat day and night to serve the middle class as these multiply exploited poor ladies are wives/sisters/mothers of migrant workers only. No road work will be constructed, quite similarly. All these glittering restaurants will become the rest houses of stray dogs as all attendants/ waiters happen to be migrant workers only. All security guards happen to be migrant workers. In fact, all governments are now following ‘Gujarat Model’. It was under the chief minister ship of the present PM that the state of Gujarat took lead to give most of the government jobs to contract labor. This was eulogized as ‘Gujarat Model’ and propagated hysterically by the Corporates and orchestrated by the sold-out media as a panacea for all disease plaguing the economy. It was, in fact, this very ‘dynamic’ trait of Mr. Modi that made him darling of the corporates and catapulted him to the national scene and eventually to the PM’s chair. The result is that all the drivers today that take the state and central government ministers from one place to another are migrant labor only as they are paid not more than 15-20 thousand rupees per month. All the computer operators, similarly, working in all government offices migrant workers as they also get paid minimum wage only. The nation is racing on the path of Gujarat Model so fast that most of the lower rung defense jobs are also going to be given like this only. Besides these, there are hundreds type of small vendors, foot path hawkers, tea stall vendors, milkmen etc. who happen to be migrant workers only. 90% employees employed with MSME Sector are on contract basis, hence are migrant worker. The unorganized labor/ informal sector labor constitutes 93% of the total labor force of the country. These real hard facts lead us, therefore, to the only conclusion that entire economy is running or resting on the broad shoulders of this most revolutionary class of migrant workers. They are historically empowered to make or break this economy. Nothing will move if they decide. If they get educated and organized, they can bring entire economy to screeching halt within no time, the moment they decide. This exactly is the reason why the government was, first, forcing them to their slums but when these brave soldiers challenged their illegal and forceful confinement and revolted braving unsurmountable hardships and putting their own life on line, government was left with no option but to allow running trains but again conspired against these hungry workers and allowed only a few trains with so many conditions attached so that only few could avail this facility and majority of them remain stranded till industries begin to function again. No problem, even if hundreds of them die of hunger, exhaustion or in accidents in the process, there is more than adequate of reserve army of the unemployed in the country in any way. Who says the government is insensitive to all? It is very much sensitive but only to the interest of the corporates.
What Is To Be Done?
- First and foremost, a detailed dossier of all those workers who lost their lives by hunger, exhaustion or in accidents during the period since lock down was announced on 24th March 2020, should be prepared by a joint committee of the trade unions as these are not normal deaths. This issue has to be taken to its logical conclusion. Even the paltry compensation that is announced by some state governments will not be implemented, otherwise. Adequate compensation sufficient to cover all the expenses of the family members for their entire life, employment to at least one of the families of all those died on their way home should be ensured by the trade union movement.
- Migrant workers are completely ruined and devastated. They are battered so severely that a lot of work will be required to make them believe that they, too, are human beings like others and deserve to be treated respectfully. They need to be approached first to comfort them that they are not alone, entire working class is with them so that they get their confidence back. They have, then, to be educated and organized. Since they do not have any fixed place of working, their settlements, the slums, and the labor chawks where they stand everyday morning to sell their labor power have to become the real places of trade union activities. Labor chawks in the morning and at slums spread all over the nation in the evening have to become the centers of intense political activity. There is no other way to organize them.
- Migration of the work force on large scale is caused by the ruin of traditional feudal system which got uprooted by the same capitalism which swept away small business enterprise in the urban centers. As the same economic process continues these workers stand sans means of production whatsoever. After this tortious reverse process is over, these workers will have to take that emotional journey from their villages again to the places of industrial production. There is an urgent need for Migrant Worker’s Welfare Board to come into existence in real sense and not in files alone to take care of such eventualities that are bound to occur again and again so long as this exploitative system of capitalism exists and is not replaced by the worker’s own state power, Socialism. Protracted movements will have to be unleashed to make that happen and in the meantime it is to be ensured that the migrant workers get their salary paid during the lockdown, to see that ration is supplied to them and they do not die of hunger.
- Gujarat High Court has asked the state government recently to bear one side journey of the migrant workers those judges though stand transferred since then. Gujarat government then submitted in the court that there are only 7223 migrant workers registered. Hence only these workers are eligible for this fare relief. The same government, however, acknowledged at the same time that there are over 12,50,000 migrant workers in the state of Gujarat!! This is the real state of affair with regards to migrant workers. All the laws of land are designed in a way that even if some relief is announced, it should never reach them. This is abject failure of the trade unions that are run by the aristocrats like a corporate entity only catering to the corrupted white collar employees who have forgot to fight long back as they are enjoying fruits of sacrifices of the workers in labor movement. Real proletariat cannot be organized without proletariatization of the trade unions and trade union leaders. Major portion of the proletariat is not counted even by the leaders claiming to fight for them. SUITABLE MECHANISM HAS TO BE EVOLVED AND IT HAS TO BE ENSURED THAT ANY RELIEF MEANT FOR THE UNORGANIZED/ INFORMAL SECTOR WORKERS REMAINS FREE FROM ANY CONDITION OF REGISTRATION/ RATION CARD/ AADHAR CARD ETC.
- The mass movements on the real issues of increasing the minimum wages, implementation of the same, free medical facilities, free education facilities, sanitization and cleanliness at all the slums and JJ colonies, old age homes there, pension to the retirees, protection and compensation during lock down, retrenchment etc. have to be unleashed.
- At cities as well as at villages, be it MGNREGA or otherwise, a minimum wage or unemployment allowances adequate to ensure humanly life to all, pension to all, residential accommodation to all is the responsibility of the concerned state. Provide the same to all, has to be the clarion call.
- There is over 7.7 crore ton of food grain available in warehouses and another 4-crore ton is added out of this rabi harvest. Food grains rot during every rainy season, everybody sees that. For any death occurring because of hunger, the government official concerned with distribution of ration to that area has to be held personally accountable. There has to be no condition of ration card attached to distribution of food material. Providing ration card unattached with any condition of linkage to Aadhaar card to all living people is the responsibility of the government.
- There has to be adequate budget allocation for health and education. Public health system needs to be strengthened/ revamped to take care of any such pandemic in future. Climate destruction is so ruthless that we cannot escape such pandemic in future also, so long as this bloody system of capitalism exists. There has to be a law by which government has to take over all private health facilities and flats lying empty in cities without compensation in case of any such health emergency as at present.
- Government cannot be allowed to alter any of the labor laws like increasing the working hours from 8 to 12 or even an hour more. These rights are earned after long struggles and after a lot of sacrifices, shedding sweat and blood of fighting workers. Allowing this to happen will be a disrespect to the martyrdom of the great revolutionaries of May Day.
- Surveys conducted by various organizations at Patna reveal that whatever meagre relief is declared by the government to save face under pressure from the public also doesn’t reach to the beneficiary. Even the shameful amount of Rs.500 pm which was to be deposited into every Jandhan account is also not credited as many of these accounts which were opened with zero balance are closed by the bank. Similarly, a financial help of Rs.1000 pm to workers is also not credited because of the same reason. A lot of people either do not have ration card or the cards are not at the place where they are residing and working. A mechanism of trade union activists has to be formed to ensure implementation of the declared relief as the government does not bother to see whether it is being implemented or not.
- Several crore migrant workers have revers migrated from their far-off places of work in the big cities to their villages. They have endured so much pains and experienced so intense brutality and insensitivity that they will not be prepared to go back soon. The biggest challenge is to force the governments of the respective state to provide them job there itself or pay them adequate unemployment allowance, sufficient quantity of ration with good quality worth eating for human beings at their actual place of living only. Whatever arrangements are required by the state government with the central government is that state government business. It is none of the concerns of the worker.
MAZADOORON KI EK PUKAR… IZZAT, ROTI, ROZAGAAR
(WORKERS’ ONLY DEMAND… RESPECT, FOOD, EMPLOYMENT)
मज़दूरों की एक पुकार — इज्ज़त, रोटी, रोज़गार!
Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 2/ June ’20)