There is a kind of myth making going on in the media that migrant workers are leaving cities for their love of home. For example, listening to the ‘echo of migrant footfalls’, Sanjoy Hazarika writes
The question is what choice these migrant workers had. They did not start their journey from the cities out of love for their homeland and relatives. They had to leave their homes in the cities. We conveniently/unconsciously switch this compulsion to leave cities for a phrase ‘love for the home’. Those who had some means to stay deferred their journey.
To say that migrant workers are leaving cities for their love of home/natives is to absolve ourselves from looking at harsh conditions which forced them out of city boundaries and left them walking in extreme conditions or undertaking arduous train journey.
This is not the first case when migrant workers are leaving cities. In late 1896, Mumbai came into the grip of Plague and by February 1897 around four lakh migrants, constituting half of Mumbai’s population, fled the city. During 1897 to 1899, around four million people were medically examined before they were allowed to enter into Bengal. Approximately 72000 people were detained for plague related and other reasons. This gives us a broad contour to imagine the scale of migration due to the spread of dreadful Plague which were killing nearly 1900 people every week in Mumbai. There was a panic in the city. The government had already brought in one of the most draconian regulations of colonial periods, the Indian Epidemic Act of 1897. Thousands of homes were declared unfit for living and were destroyed. There were rumours circulating and fuelling insecurities. For example, the rumour that Indians were captured and hospitalised so that the oil (momiai from their bodies can be extracted. We come across the fear of this body oil momiai getting circulated in a very wide geography and across the seas (among indenture labourers in the Carribeans to East Africa to Bombay). Should we not factor the widespread fear, the panic behind workers’ migration? Historians like David Arnold and particularly Prashant Kidambi have written that from the outset lower class neighbourhoods and poor were targeted by colonial government’s Plague policies during the outbreak of Plague in 1896.
Yet, we do not know whether there was a shortage of food and work back then in 1896-1899. The scenario was slightly different in the case of the Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 which killed around 50 million people worldwide, a one third of the entire population and around 15 million people in India alone. In 1918, the South-West monsoon, a feature of June-July, failed leading to crop failure in various parts of the country like Gujarat, Bombay, Deccan, Berar, Rajputana, southern Central Provinces ( Marathi speaking areas) and United Provinces. People from these famine stricken regions moved to Bombay city and official reports note ‘a large influx, especially of pooerer people into the city’ in ‘weakened and destitute condition’. These malnourished bodies were easy prey for the deadly flu catapulting the mortality figures manifold.
Historians largely agree that each epidemics are unique. Yet, in each episodes (at least in the case of India), epidemics, food insecurity and migration are intertwined with each other. In most cases, though nature’s vagaries act their roles, scarcities are man-made.
In the case of Covid 19 scenario, ground reports have increasingly made it clear that non-payment of wages and salary at all levels in the informal sector for a better part of extended lockdown period was a major reason behind migrant exodus from cities. In addition to the paucity of liquid cash in their pockets, the food provided to them (both in cooked form as well as raw ration) remain highly insufficient. When sharply asked when you had the food last time; with embarrassed eyes, many of them reported, it was a day ago or even two to three days back they had something like a meal.
Coupled with indignity of standing in the food queue just for one time meal, perpetual extension of lockdown tenures accentuated insecurities for these socially alienated migrant workers. The responses to food or salary crisis differed according to internal hierarchies among these migrant workers. This is why, while the first batch of migrant walkers came from the bottom of the informal sector (daily wage earners and itinerant construction labourers abandoned by thekedars and sub-contractors), those at relatively intermediary levels of occupational hierarchy (i.e. Mason, fitters, carpenters and auto-rickshaw drivers) braced food and cash crisis in initial phases of the lockdown. They waited for the trains to resume. They pulled money to hire goods containers, tempos and small trucks. Many of them had to request their near and distant relatives living in villages to transfer money to sustain themselves and to undertake journey. For the first time, in the history of migration, we have witnessed reverse remittances. Yet, we do not know at what point and which specific elements convinced them to move out of their cities.
This is also because neither social scientists nor policy makers care to ask: what do migrant workers think and how do they make decisions? Except psephologists, politicians during election campaigns and some of the ground reporters, these two questions bother none of us.
There is a deeper design when we succumbed to this myth making. The discourse on migration worker has denied the agency to migrants. We have never considered them beyond statistical numbers. We have never engaged with their subjectivities. This myopia is a characteristic feature of the scholarship on internal labour migration in India. Except a couple of scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty (in his work on Jute mill workers of Bengal) and Raj Chandavarkar (on migrants from Ratnagiri districts and rural western Maharashtra working in textile mills of Mumbai), migration scholars have not paid any attention even to cultural ties or linkages which workers carry along with them when they move to cities. Only recently, scholars have started spending some amount of analytical energy to aspects like ideas of home circulating in the folk memory. However, these forays are yet to acquire substantive visibility in the discourse on migration. This lack of attention to migrant subjectivities and scholarly apathy towards meaningfully engaging with migrants’ belonging is ironical as we have a very sophisticated and robust discourse on subjectivity, belonging/attachment and longing in the context of the scholarship on diaspora or even cinematic representations of diasporic communities.
In the case of internal migration of migrant labourers, first, we are told that migrants were forced out of villages. They had to move to cities and/or to other states. Now, suddenly we have switched our positions and keep declaring that these migrants can actually exercise their agencies and translate their love for their homes into concrete actions by taking this arduous journey. What this switching subtly does is making migrant workers responsible for all the troubles they face in the course of the journey. It is like saying Hey! I told you not to go out and yet you did that. Now, face the consequences.
First, we never bothered whether these migrant workers were capable of love (their homes) and now suddenly, we forget that it is not their love but an imposed condition… and their indomitable zeal to survive.