The unprecedented migration of migrant labourers from UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and other states from various destinations in the century in the last week of March has reminded me of the migration of population that took place in 1947 at the time of partition of India.
I was moved with the plight of the movement of the migrants from different parts of the country on foot when the prime minister announced complete lockdown to fight the spread of corona virus-a dreaded virus which has taken the whole world into its grip.
I would like to mention here that the present migration was different from what I saw in 1947.That was rather more painful as the country was divided into India and Pakistan by the British on religious basis and the division of the country was followed by the communal riots and clashes between the Muslims on one side and the Hindus and Sikhs on the other. The people from West Punjab had to leave their homes with small belongings in caravans of bullock-carts, buses, trucks and railways.
The exchange of human population between the two nations was said to be the highest in the history of mankind in which more than twenty lakh men, women and children were killed on both sides. Lakhs of women were raped and murdered. I was just an eight year old when the partition took place and we moved from Nankana Sahib to first Amritsar and then to Ludhiana where I have spent the whole of my life.
Those Punjabi refugees who came from West Punjab to East Punjab were rehabilitated by the Indian government and they were allotted agricultural land and houses in urban Punjab. The Punjabis faced the wrath of the partition boldly and soon they settled down.
But the migration of March 2020 was different from the migration of 1947. Lakhs of migrant workers from the eastern states have been visiting states like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Delhi, Kerala and Gujarat in search of livelihood. They have been visiting these states from past more than three decades.
These migrant workers, as a matter of fact, have become the backbone of the economy of these states and the nation as a whole. These states like Punjab, Haryana and Delhi are solely dependent on them. The sudden lockdown announced by the prime minister has upset their apple cart and they were not treated by their employers well nor by state governments.
They were left in the lurch as the employers did not pay them their earnings and they were given only bus and train fares. They were told by the employers to go to their homes(native places) and come back only after the corona virus scare is wiped out. They had no money to fill their bellies even.
They were stranded at places like Delhi and when they found that there were no arrangements for their movement by trains or buses, they started moving to their natives on foot with small belongings on their heads with their two-four years old children. It was not an easy task to reach their homes which are 2000 to 2500 kms away. It was a plight to see them moving with empty pockets.
The opposition parties and the social organizations have criticized the central and state governments for not making any arrangements before announcing the complete lockdown in the country for three weeks. All these migrant workers belong to the unorganized sector of the labour in the country which is the largest segment. More than 80 percent labor in the country belongs to the unorganized sector.
There were strict orders to police and para military forces to check the movement of the migrants and they were not allowed to gather in large numbers. But despite that, they collected in thousands in search of buses and all efforts to maintain ‘social distancing’ which is the paramount need to check the spread of COVID-19 failed. The police beat them up and states like Bihar refused to allow the entry into their home districts.
The social activists like Harsh Mander and Yogendra Yadav have strongly criticized the Prime Minister and state governments. They maintain that the Prime Minister should have convened a meeting of the state chief ministers and finalized the arrangements before declaring complete lockdown for three weeks. They also criticized the government for not providing them with the food when the godowns of the central government are full of food grains which is rotting.
The UP government has come under attack for spraying migrants with chemicals as a process of sanitizing them. This was inhuman act. It is not clear how long it will take to eliminate the scare of Covid-19.
But the states like Punjab and Haryana which are predominantly agricultural states will face mounting difficulty in the harvesting and threshing operations of wheat which they propose to start from April 15.
The harvesting of wheat normally starts in the first week of April but this time it is delayed because of the inclement weather conditions and exodus of the migrant labour. All major agricultural operations in Punjab are performed by the migrants in both the seasons- Rabi and Kharif.
The grain markets in the state which used to have traditional palledars also have been replaced by the migrant labour. Now all operations in the grain markets of loading and unloading of grains and their movement to the godowns are carried out by the migrants.
Similarly industries in Punjab are also dependent on the migrant workers. They dominate the textile, bicycle and other manufacturing industries. The industry was already facing shortage of labour.
Now when the migrants have gone back to their homes, they are not likely to return for the wheat harvesting operations and the industrial production would also be hit badly.The states are faced with a huge challenges.
KS Chawla is a senior journalist based at Ludhiana.
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