“We build the nation’s roads, yet no one thinks of us as their own. Our soldier brothers are regarded as fallen heroes, but we are mere crushed footnotes”
—Paulus Hansda, a migrant worker from Dumka, Jharkhand working as a road construction worker near Batalik in Ladakh
I first spoke to Hansda, 28, a confident young Santhali man, in May 2020. While the blazing mid-day sun was melting the near-empty roads across the country, migrant workers with their families were still returning to their homes, most of them walking with their modest belongings, the lucky ones in the newly-begun Shramik Special trains and comparatively affluent ones hoarding buses, trucks, matadors and whatever they could lay their hands on.
Hansda was stuck with 65 other migrant workers, all Santhali Adivasi men from Dumka, in and around Dras, Batalik and other higher ranges in the treacherous border regions of Ladakh, at approximately 17,000-18,000 feet. Since the early 1970s, the Santhali Adivasi of Dumka have been building roads for the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in the most difficult border regions of the country, enabling the armed forces to reach the last frontier, safeguarding forward base camps and outposts.
Hansda’s video seeking help from the state government of Jharkhand had reached me through a network of journalists and civil society members. The video subsequently triggered a slew of actions by the Chief Minister’s Office, Jharkhand, which would result in the first-ever airlift rescue of migrant workers by any state government.
In that daunting summer of 2020, the officially estimated 10 million migrant workers who took the long and arduous journey back home, laid bare some fundamental questions about justice, inclusion and equity. Those haunting images, which seem to be already fading in our collective public memory, need to be revisited to understand the magnitude of the precariousness of the informalised nature of our labour force.
Without formal work contracts of any kind, mostly inaccessible health insurance in the destination economic clusters, impediments to accessing food grains through the recent One Nation One Ration Card scheme, or the lack of a comprehensive social security framework to buffer them through a crisis, our unorganised workers—particularly those who migrate (circular, seasonal or long term)—are the most prone to vulnerability and destitution.
Since times immemorial, migration has been a central motif to the story of human settlements, economic prosperity and social aspirations.
In late October 2021, I met Jai Marandi, a young lad of 24, in a BRO transit camp near Lamayaru Monastery, en route Zozila Pass on the Leh-Kargil Highway. Marandi loves changing his WhatsApp DP and prefers wearing denim. He first came to Ladakh when he was 20, with his maternal uncle, who promised road work for five months.
“The first two years were very tough—the biting cold and the wind; yet we stayed back, worked and toiled, and spent our nights listening to voice notes of our friends and family members back in our villages,” Marandi tells me while showing his small room he has received as a cook. While his fellow workers had started to return, his culinary skills enabled him to stay back in the winters working as a cook to the Commanding Officer of the BRO camp. He proudly shows his denim jacket and a cycle parked sideways.
“In summer, we see droves of tourists driving towards Kargil from Leh, crossing us while we work. They also stop cars and click selfies in front of the famous road signs on these passes. I wish they felt like taking a photo with us too. Yet I’m happy that these roads built by us bring the entire country here,” says Marandi when asked about his experience of working far away from home.
In Bheed, the new Anubhav Sinha film on the migrant crisis of 2020, the character of the watchman says, “Some of us make the malls, some of us guard them while they are being constructed. After completion, entering these spaces is a distant dream and a crime for most of us.”
Between 2020 and 2023, multiple efforts have been made by the Central Government and numerous state governments towards streamlining a welfare framework for migrant workers. The E-Shram Portal by the Ministry of Labour, Government of India, showcases nearly 28.78 crore workers registered under multiple unorganised sectors of work. The majority of workers are registered in states which also witnessed the maximum exodus of returning migrants in 2020. Yet state governments and the Centre are yet to ascertain the true proportion of migrant workers and the actual status of their social welfare enrolment and uptake.
The crisis that unfolded during the lockdown has exposed the exploitative faultlines in our burgeoning economy that survives on the cheap labour of people who leave their villages—sometimes in distress and sometimes for aspirational economic opportunities—to come to the cities in search of work.
Further, there are compounded layers of vulnerabilities for women migrant workers, especially with the absence of childcare facilities, decent housing and sanitation at work sites in destination regions. If these structures of exploitation and inequality have to be mitigated, the invisibility of our migrant workers must be made visible.
Over the past three years, state governments of Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala have undertaken several policy and evidence-based initiatives which need to be assessed, studied and possibly replicated at scale with the Central Government’s assistance and guidance.
The recent fiasco in Tamil Nadu leading to thousands of migrant workers leaving for their homes in Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand, is again a stark reminder of the need for collective action to ensure reactions are not mere knee-jerk but more responsive and sustainable. The complexities associated with the dynamic nature of work and mobility of migrant workers need institutional mechanisms to be set up between states with high out-migration, and destination states receiving high in-migration. Critical economic sectoral associations, particularly from the real estate and construction, apparel, textiles, jewellery and automobile sectors also need to ensure the provisioning of decent work conditions.
In Bheed, Rajkumar Rao’s character of a Dalit police officer tells Kritika Kamra, essaying an eager journalist: “This is an epic that we are witnessing. But it can’t be forgotten. All of us, you and everyone else need to write this epic, lest we forget each life that got grinded”.
The lives and stories of Marandi, Hansda and millions of our migrant workers need to be strongly visible and not as mere footnotes in the journey of India’s economic transformation. We would do well to recollect these treasured lines from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as "Revisiting Lockdown")
Arindam Banerjee is the co-founder and partner at policy and development Advisory group