Migrants back in farms, factories

Print edition : July 03, 2020
The factories in Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana and Barnala and farms across Punjab are swinging back into action as workers return from their home towns and villages.

AT a time when most States are reeling under the aftermath of the large-scale migration of urban labour, Punjab is faced with the challenge of ‘reverse migration’. The labourers who had migrated back home to Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh following the abrupt announcement of the lockdown in March end, and endured untold hardships to reach their home towns and villages, are now beginning to trickle back to farms, just in time for the sowing of paddy in the State. While many have boarded buses on their own to arrive in time for paddy-sowing and to resume work in woollens-manufacturing units, others have been luckier. Their travel expenses are being borne by their employers in Punjab. The migrant labourers who could barely earn anything since their arrival back home are understandably relieved to go back. It is not without its downside, though.

Recently there were reports of some wealthy farm owners and businessmen flying workers back at their own expense. The labourers who had struggled to reach home, often taking as many as five days on Shramik Special trains (many had even walked for weeks to reach home), were understandably elated about their first air travel. The news portal The Wire reported the efforts of a Ludhiana-based blanket manufacturer, Bobby Jindal, who brought labourers back from Bihar so that his business could resume operations with skilled labour.

Incidentally, June is the month when Ludhiana’s hosiery industry comes into its own with booming trade in winter products. This year, the absence of skilled labour meant the factory and farm owners were left with no alternative but to bring the labourers back at their own expense. Most were happy to pay Rs.2,500 per person for bus travel from Bihar to Punjab. They are now providing the labourers with food and lodging, besides the per-unit manufacturing charges of winter goods in urban areas, or in the case of farm labour the charges for paddy sowing per acre. Around the same time, other workers reached Hoshiarpur and Barnala, hoping to resume work as factory workers. Unlike the lucky few who arrived by air, they took the long road back to their workplaces, followed by a two-week quarantine period.

The labourers, who realise that they have an edge, are demanding anything up to Rs.6,000 an acre for paddy-sowing, in contrast to the Rs.2,700 to Rs.3,000 they were paid earlier. The farm owners remain hopeful of striking a deal between Rs.3,500 and Rs.3,700, though they say even this will escalate their costs substantially. Still they consider this the better option than having an entire paddy crop ruined with unskilled labour.

The contrast to the time when millions of migrant labourers left Punjab for their home towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar could not be more marked. Then they were left to fend for themselves by the Central and State governments and their employers.

Professor Maitrayee Chaudhuri of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Social Sciences says, “A crisis usually exposes the hidden structure of a society. The pandemic has revealed it in a dramatic fashion. It is important, however, not to ‘blame everybody’ for this mess or ‘society’ at large. The migrants too are part of our society. Blaming everyone amounts to blaming nobody. All countries are battling this enormous crisis. But we did not see such visuals from anywhere else. The reckless and callous state decision to give four hours to pack up for a lockdown resulted in this. The average urban middle-class person may or may not be aware that lockdown has very different implications for different sections of people. But the state is supposed to know. It is in the business of governance. That our cities run on the labour of poor migrants should not be something that the government does not know....

“Two points emerge here from what I call ‘cognitive invisibility’ of the urban poor in dominant consciousness. Firstly, poor people are not ‘people’ like us. We see them physically, but as ‘labour’ not ‘people’. And the government does not seem to see them as ‘citizens’ either.... So in the addresses of the Prime Minister we see that the addressee is the urban middle class. This is true cognitive invisibility at work. Until they spilled out onto the streets, it did not strike anyone. Secondly, in India this attitude, what was termed as ‘the middle class secession from poor Indians’ has grown and flourished since the 1990s.”

It is this middlc class that has brought migrant labour back to looms and farms. This seems a good-for-all solution on paper, but it exposes the hidden crevices of a society that looks at men/women as labour or mere statistics rather than as people. “They are ‘labour’, instrumental for their business, industry or agriculture, to function and profit. The idea of humanitarianism like the idea of fellow citizenship is dead.”

However, it is not as if only the farm or business owners stand to gain. The economy, which is staring at a shortfall of up to 70 per cent, also gets the much-needed shot in the arm. And the migrants, who could barely hope to earn Rs.200 a day working on agricultural fields in Bihar are happier earning three times the amount.

How does one arrive at the complete picture with both the haves and the have-nots needing each other at this time?

Prof. Chaudhuri says: “Migrants need the jobs. But we need to phrase this in terms of democratic rights. Right to employment, fair wages, livelihood, security... define our constitutional values. (So the ‘dues’ that employers owed the migrants was their ‘right’.) They are the core of a democracy. Democracy has been reduced to a PR exercise. Not adherence to the three basic core ideas of equality, liberty, fraternity.” She pointed that out in the early weeks of the lockdown things were different as labour was considered expendable to middle-class requirements in the short run.

“The migrants were not just forgotten, but beaten and maltreated in fear of the ‘virus’. Old ideas of class, caste and communities came to the fore. The tension between formal equalities granted by the Constitution and the deep inequalities [that exist] were on display. Inequalities won the day,” she said.

That may be true. For the moment, though, Punjab could do with the helping hand provided by the return of workers. The factories in Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana and Barnala and farms across the State are swinging back into action. Never mind the rising costs of the labour and the consequent increase in cost of production.

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