For many years I have held the belief that India has the same diverse complexities like the EU. While in the past, the countries within the EU enjoyed independence and economic freedom, a lot if it got subsumed into the EU. The EU and India serve as common markets providing for ease of movement of goods and services, and mobility of people. Both are trying to profit from cheap labor with minimum entitlements, creating an underclass – the migrants. In this exploitative process for the most part, the authorities can only deal with the problem at the fringe.
In these “unified continents”, migrants are isolated, have no choice but to live homeless, or in ghettoes and slums, with poor or no basic facilities or support, and are left to fend for themselves. These are not people who have been in the country or state for more than a generation, but have contributed significantly to development and diversity of the destination country or state. Each of us, except those below the age of 10, if we go back 10 years and note the socio-economic changes we have seen, been a part of and also benefited from, would realise the invaluable role of migrants in this transformation. Yet, migrants remain the invisible people.
If paid well, their rights-based entitlements provided, and employers, businesses and industry were fair and just, why would there be an exodus of migrants in times of crises? The lockdown’s biggest casualties are those who have no place to get locked into but to go back home wherever that is. This is the unfolding tragedy and should have been taken into account as a major outcome of the lockdown. In hindsight, everyone can be wise, but it is foresight that helps us in the long run. I would like to stay with the migrants’ future for we cannot do without them, now or in the future.
There is an expression in Hindi that best characterises the migrant experience and existence – ‘Na ghar ka Na ghat ka’ – and to transform this to a more humane life will require a collective will. It cannot be left to philanthropists and NGOs alone to fill this gap. There is a major role to be played by institutions of the state, the employer and the home. Information varies, but there are an estimated 100 million internal migrants, 20 per cent of the workforce contributing to 10 per cent of the country’s gross output. Data is not accurate as a lot is not recorded. There is an urgent need to resolve this problem. In the absence of accurate data, institutions decline taking responsibility, and the migrants are left to their own devices or with no choice but to leave.
If we need to correct this travesty, we need to start at the fundamentals – drawing up a clear plan of action. Let a group of individuals – state and non-state -- chalk out a clear migration management plan based on the rights of migrant workers already enshrined. The United Nation in addressing the ‘Rights of Migrant Workers’ set out in its charter in July 2003: The human right to equal pay for equal work; the human right to freedom from forced labour; the human right to protection against arbitrary expulsion from the state of employment; and the human right to return home if the migrant wishes. A colleague once said that a migrant leaves home young, in good health, and with aspiration; and returns emaciated, half of what she was, and often unwanted. This is not what we are entrusted to do, but to do much better, for the greater good. This is what our Constitution mandates us to do.
Sanjaya Krishnamurti-Senior Fellow, Public Affairs Centre