The defining image of the coronavirus crisis has been the trudging of thousands of migrants to their home, mainly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha. They no longer care about their jobs and higher wages. They simply want to reach their habitat on foot and by trains, trucks, buses, tempos and bicycles braving hunger, rains, heat, death, and fatal accidents. In the past, they had also left in hordes, scared of losing their lives to chauvinist local goons like Raj Thackeray, but the death-wish to escape in-humans among their employers was not so compelling, then.
This time, the phony exhibition of horror, anger, and disgust by politicians, progressives and the civil society, and the district administration’s unprecedented apathy have made them more resolute than ever before to lumber ahead. Their desperation to leave is understandable. During their forced lay-off, employers turned their back on their face. Maids, cooks, gardeners, drivers etc were denied salary, workers in semi-organized sectors were summarily retrenched, their dues were forfeited and almost everyone was thrown out of his modest dwellings for non-payment of rentals.
The state and charitable organisations provided food to mostly domiciled workers while migrants looked on, helplessly. Everyone developed amnesia that they had exploited these wage-earners economically for years. When chief ministers began conspiring to pack them off, because they had no food to spare for them and when others refused to let them go as if they were bonded labourers, they decided enough was enough. They realised they had no place in the jungle of vultures and it was better they die among known faces.
UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha must welcome their home-bound natives with open arms and employ them gainfully in transforming the states’ infrastructure and economy. It is a historic opportunity to turn themselves into a workhorse of business, agriculture and cottage industry that suits the local genius and in a destination for excellent professional and medical courses that import and not export students.
This is the only way these states can make their people hold their heads high and spare them from carrying the stigma of belonging to ‘Bimaru’ states and wearing the mocking label of ‘migrants’ in their own country. Let illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, whose numbers (1.46 crore) are almost identical, fill their jobs. If they ever decide to return to their previous employers, they must ensure they have a pan-India ration card and their family avail the educational and medical facilities that domiciled inhabitants enjoy. Let the Election Commission also consider empowering them to vote, wherever they are. It is the only tool that will make politicians to sit up and take note of their grievances.