The worst thing we have done to the migrant workers of India—even beyond the lack of empathy to their plight—was to rebrand them as ‘guest’ workers. With just that one term, we have legitimised their exclusion from our microsocieties.
As ‘guests’ in their place of work, they do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights that locals do. Their hometowns too, in their absence, metamorphose into a different, alien land. In effect, they get reduced to being no land’s men. Over the last month, this newspaper spoke to many migrant labourers who had walked or cycled hundreds of kilometres to Chennai from across Tamil Nadu, and planned to continue for another thousand to get to their homes in North and East India. Almost all of them said their problem was two-pronged. They were not just going because they had to get home to their families.
They were going as this was not home. They felt no sense of belonging here. Beyond fellow migrants, they had no social support. Even when they were leaving by foot, they only got charity from strange volunteers. No help came from neighbours or employers. Many of them had been evicted from their homes and were unpaid by their employers when they left. Anticipating this, most migrant workers never considered resettling in their place of work along with their families. Schooling, they say, has always been a problem. Most free schools run by state governments are in the local language, which they can barely comprehend.
The need of the hour is inclusivity. Migrant workers must feel at home in the cities they help build. Governments must work towards this integration. Multilingual affordable schools, rent control policies and extension of free healthcare programmes to migrant labourers are needed to build inclusive cities. Over
2.5 lakh labourers fled Tamil Nadu, unable to withstand the lockdown trauma. Industries and businesses are now worried about labour shortage, and fall in productivity. And the root cause of this problem is that we treated migrants as ‘guests’—invited or otherwise—who had to flee at the first sight of trouble.