At the second edition of The Indian Express Thinc Migration series, moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Udit Misra, panelists spoke on nativist policies and how to give migrants a political voice.
On the impact of lockdown on migrants
Chinmay Tumbe: The idea that migrants would want to go back home is the most stylised fact of every pandemic and so this is one puzzle as to why we really do not see this at the top-level policymaking. I’ll give you two examples from history. Firstly, in 1911 when the Chinese authorities (during the pneumonic plague) shut down the railways for migrant workers. They got a full-blown humanitarian crisis when the Chinese workers had to walk back home and many of them died because it was winter. The other example is from our own history when the plague struck Bombay in the 1890s. The British arranged special trains knowing fully well that they would not be able to curb people’s intentions to go back. Any policymaker has to take two things into account — how do we get migrant workers back home as quickly as possible, and if that is not the intention because you don’t want the virus to spread, then how do we ensure unlimited social security for at least a few months?
Priya Deshingkar: A lot of returning migrants were left out of state benefits because they simply couldn’t prove who they were as they didn’t have the documentation. They couldn’t prove that they were registered under the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act. There are roughly two million migrant workers in Surat and only 7,000 are registered under this Act.
On nativist policies
Satyajeet Rajan: Until India comes to terms with the fact that we are one nation, this nativism will not go. The states have not been able to take care of the migrant workers only because they never mattered to them. The Interstate Migrant Workers Act came in 1981 and it has taken 40 years for states to realise it.
Naushad Forbes: The particular legislation that we’ve seen coming out of Haryana and Jharkhand is indeed nativist and will not work. I cannot understand the Jharkhand legislation (Jharkhand State Employment of Local Candidates Bill, 2021) given that it is a huge supply state for migrant workers to the rest of the country. It’s people with skills that aren’t there in Jharkhand, you want those to come in because they will create more employment locally and if you have more people fthan you have employment, you want them to go and work somewhere else and send money back… It’s the kind of law that should be struck down by the Supreme Court and I think it will be.
Chinmay Tumbe: The Jharkhand government, which should actually be trying to look for the welfare of its own workers, the millions outside Jharkhand, is instead instituting a reservation policy with 75 per cent reservations in jobs for locals, which is quite counterproductive.
On the political voice of migrant workers
Yamini Aiyer: Even during the peak of the lockdown, the Vande Bharat flights were moving up and down. We didn’t do that for our own internal migrant workers. It’s relevant because it matters to how both the Centre and the states chose to address this problem, even from a budgetary point of view, one year on. Rural (India) has a political voice so we have been able to at least put in some bare-bones architecture, but the urban worker, the informal worker, that is also significantly the casual migrant worker, doesn’t have a political voice.
Satyajeet Rajan: When a state wants to put its money on anything, they have the money. Unfortunately, these people do not have a political voice. So what should we do? We should encourage them, we should train them to become voters in the new place. A number of people coming from other states, we have made them voters in Kerala. So this way again, they become more and more part of Kerala society, and they will have a voice also.
On why migration is good
Naushad Forbes: Migration is a way in which you actually work as one market, where people move from where employment opportunities are less to where employment opportunities are more, where everyone ends up with a better life, and as a result, shedding the notion that migrants are less than local, as less than equal.
On what states are doing
Yamini Aiyer: You will have to make the distinction between destination and source states. In some senses, money is a major issue in the source states and it isn’t in destination. Money is not as much a constraint if Centre and state were to be able to work together in a coordinated fashion. Making the problem visible is crucial, but creating the institutional environment for acting on that visibility is even more important.
On the draft Migrant Labour Policy
Priya Deshingkar: There’s quite a lot in the draft policy to be welcomed and celebrated. But I do feel that it’s somewhat apolitical as it doesn’t reflect the real political economy of how migrants are employed, what their experiences are, how labour is recruited, how they’re placed within the industry, and why certain kinds of migrants are preferred in certain kinds of jobs. This is also linked to the nativist policy question whose underlying assumption is that we want to keep our own workers in our own state so that they can contribute to our own economy. But the question is will that work? Another thing that I felt was a bit weak in the policy was the issue of gender.