Covid-19 and a realisation: The migrant worker is indispensable


The Covid-19 pandemic, besides taking a toll on human life, has brought to focus the underbelly of society. The well-off segment of Chandigarh (the smug bourgeoisie), have always blamed politicians for peopling the city with ‘bhaiyas’ (pejoratively used for migrant labour) only for building their vote-banks. I have often been confronted by friends with the question, “When, for God’s sake, will you ever come out of the colonies?”

When I came to Chandigarh as a college student in 1965, I saw labourers staying in temporary shacks near construction sites even in a sector like 17. Their makeshift shanties lacked amenities and their children played on the sand and gravel dumps as the parents slogged for paltry wages.

Concomitant with the growth of the city, grew the need for more workers. Households and commercial establishments needed helps for diverse jobs. As those from the region did not consider it rewarding enough to shift here for low-paying manual jobs, there began an inflow of workers from other states, leading to unauthorised squatting on government land. Owners of land that was yet to be acquired found it profitable to let out rows of small plots with narrow lanes to migrant labour. A modicum of civic services such as a few toilets, water stand posts and open drains came to be provided later.

Waking up to Le Corbusier’s Edict of Chandigarh being compromised by the growth of unhygienic shanties in a modern city, which by then had become a Union Territory, courtesy the wrangling states of Punjab and Haryana, the UT administration came up with schemes to build tenements or allot vacant plots in planned colonies for the rehabilitation of labourers in the peripheral areas or even within the city.

Before that, it was only the ‘cheap houses’ that were built for the dhobis (washermen) or for the government sanitation staff etc. Besides this, an otherwise elaborate plan of the new city did not provide for adequate socio-economic integration in the form of general low-cost housing. The smallest size of a plot for non-government houses was four marlas (100 sq yd) in this oasis of affluence.

On getting the privilege of representing Chandigarh in the Lok Sabha in 1991, a priority I marked for myself was making the city slum-free. There was gradual progress, but it was only under a scheme of 2006 that a need of about 25,000 dwelling units was projected to achieve the zero-slum target. Funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) came in adequate measure. No new squatters’ colony has sprung up since and only one colony stands on private land.

The migrant labourers were, in the meantime, cursed for being a burden on others: for eating away subsidies, for paying no taxes, for making the city unclean, for generating heaps of garbage, for crime and what not! “If they work for us, they get paid for it,” has been our self-righteous attitude towards them. Analyses of the last two elections point to these people moving away from me, yet my belief in them remained unshaken.

Then came this invisible micro-organism called novel coronavirus. Its spread forced a lockdown on over 130 crore Indians, including the 12 lakh plus people of Chandigarh. With just a four-hour notice, all movement of humans stopped; shops, factories, educational institutions, hotels, restaurants, theatres, cinema halls, salons, parlours, private clinics, even normal OPDs in government hospitals came to an abrupt halt.

There were no vendors selling fruits and vegetables, balloons, or other knick-knacks for children in deserted streets, no maids for household chores, no access to gyms for the fitness freaks, no entry to parlours and salons or services of a beautician at home.

We stood deprived of all services that we had so far taken for granted. The effect of the lockdown began to sink in and the importance of the role that migrant labour plays in our lives became more and more pronounced. On the other hand, the migrants, holed up in one-room tenements, losing their source of daily bread, came to the brink of starvation. With no cash in their pockets, most of them stared at starvation. In desperation, they embarked upon a trek to their places of origin, even a thousand kilometres away.

Covid-fearing officials along the state borders aborted their plans. Now, the Indian Railways have started running special shramik (workers) trains to ferry the migrants desirous of rejoining their separated families. The registration centre in Sector 43 now overflows with people clamouring for a ticket back home.

Tell-tale stories of agonising hardships normally highlight the inequality in a ‘welfare’ state. This only stands more pronounced during this lockdown. Yet, it has thrown up a situation where, for once, we who constitute the upper crust of society feel the pinch of having to do without the services that had been available for the asking. Only a few thousand persons, including women and children, have boarded the special trains so far, but a change is already perceptible.

We now want the departing ones to stay on. They are no more a burden on society; they pay all (indirect) taxes included in the retail prices of goods that they are able to afford, they consume less and, therefore, generate less trash; their areas are not cleaned daily and, therefore, the heaps of garbage that give them company 24×7.

The entrepreneurs know what the economists have said: Labour’s contribution to production is more than that of capital. For the wheel of progress to keep moving, the migrant worker is indispensable. This is the truth that Covid-19 has brought home to us.

The writer is a former Union minister
Pawan Kumar Bansal

Thankyou HT