umbai without migrants is just a city with no development, we cannot really sustain on the pride of soil. As the country moved towards lockdown, millions of migrants are trying to flee to their towns and villages in packed public transport in scenes reminiscent of people fleeing war. Thousands of poor city migrants whose livelihoods have collapsed due to India’s coronavirus measures headed back to their villages. It’s very much sure that these migrants will not return soon to cities. More than 90 percent of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganized sector where social security benefits and paid leave are an exception, not the norm.
Wages are low and there is little in the bank for people to fall back on. The shutdowns that now cover more than 125 million Indians will hit the poorest hard, and state protections are weak. Migrants form a large portion of this vulnerable workforce. In its 2011 Census, India counted more than 45 million economic migrants who had moved for work, the large majority of them, men. Nearly 40 percent of India’s migrants are illiterate, and the jobs they get are low paying. From a plumber to the carpenter and daily workers on construction sites to vegetable markets, these people have contributed everywhere. Without their help and services, Mumbai cannot think of being economically strong because if the work were stalled the economy would take the backseat.
Mumbai’s entire economy is based on a workforce combination of natives and immigrants. Mumbai is home to Gujaratis’, North Indians, South Indians, Parsis’, and Maharashtrians. The Gujaratis’ are essentially the moneymen of the city’s economy. Their dominance is what made Mumbai the financial capital of India. They control the city’s textile, paper, grain, and metal trades. More than 90% of the diamond merchants in Mumbai belong to this community. They are also a big part of the bullion industry and have strong foundations in the stockbroking field too. Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum is also perhaps the world’s most economically profitable slum. It houses small-scale factories that produce goods like leather bags, garments, food, toys, pottery items, and the like. It’s a complete parallel and informal economy that contributes close to USD 1 Billion to Mumbai’s yearly economic output. Let that amount sink in for a while. The poor, semi-skilled, and unskilled laborers from North India and West Bengal live here, jam-packed, 6 people in 200 square foot rooms and work away day and night and make Mumbai what it is. The public transport system is another example of immigrant contribution. Apart from the state-run BEST buses, auto-rickshaws and taxis are dominated by North Indians. Everyone in Mumbai knows the kind of mess that happens when one or both of these groups go on a strike any particular day.
Mumbai is also now home to a booming IT and healthcare industry. No one needs to explain the fact that more than 70% of nurses in most places in India are from Kerala. “Bhoomiyile Maalakhamar” is what they are called in the state and it means “Angels on earth” and it’s a befitting name and it is these immigrant women who serve the sick and wounded in the hospitals of the city and elsewhere.
The government’s handling of the crisis of thousands of migrant laborers who have been desperately trying to return home since the lockdown was imposed over a month ago is not well managed or well thought. Perhaps this is the reason they developed a phobia to return to these big cities. With no work and income to make ends meet, the workers, mostly from villages, turned restless and wanted to go back to the comfort of their own homes. While many have walked kilometres to reach home, some have even lost their lives while trying to do the same. As the government struggled to chalk out ways to make arrangements for those stranded across India, several incidents of migrant workers hiding in trains, trucks or riding bicycles to return home have been reported over the past few days. A few incidents of flash protests were also witnessed in several parts of the country, as poor workers demanded that they are allowed to travel back to their homes. As the government finally announced guidelines for the transport of stranded laborers, there have been several reports about migrants’ workers being charged for train and bus fares, while some food is being arranged by the local administrations. One should really give a thought, why this has happened to them? Who will take care of their conditions, are they just the vote banks in number, why no government thought of giving them confidence and financial support to sustain wherever they are? Can this workforce ever return to cities with so much of agony and insecurity that they left with?
Initially, it was speculated that the workers would be transported home in buses and the state government would bear the cost. Soon after this, some of them rushed to the depot only to be told they have to shell out a large sum as bus fare.
In the beginning, those who wanted to take the bus were charged a two-way fare, which led to some workers paying more than Rs 1,000 per person to travel to the northern districts of the state.
Meanwhile, the Railways that have announced the operation of “Shramik Special” trains for migrant workers and other stranded citizens said it will charge the state governments for the services. The fare would include the cost of a sleeper class ticket, a superfast charge of Rs 30, and Rs 20 for meals and water per passenger. This decision as it is an injustice towards the laborers returning home.
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