Migrant dreams and nightmares fuel India’s development story. The malls, the factories, the highways, the bridges, the luxury condominiums — the markers of the country’s stunning economic transformation over the past few decades — would not have come up without the sweat of migrant labourers. But those who migrate from one part of the country to another in search of a livelihood, continue to be problematised. This has to change.
Currently, Gujarat is on the radar. There are reports of renewed tension in the state, recently scarred by anti-migrant sentiments. Earlier this week, a three-year-old girl was raped and killed in Surat. The suspect is a migrant labourer from north India. There are also reports of assaults on construction workers from Bihar for wearing a lungi.
Hopefully, these incidents would not spark a fresh round of violence in Gujarat, which is recovering from a turbulent fortnight. Migrant labourers from northern India — mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh — were harassed and attacked in seven out of the state’s 33 districts in recent days. The trigger had been the rape of a 14-month-old baby girl by a migrant labourer from Bihar in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district on September 28. Soon after, all too predictably, local politics came into play. Alpesh Thakor, a Congress MLA, is reported to have made an inflammatory speech that stoked anti-migrant sentiments. Mr Thakor now says he is all for peace.
What happened in Gujarat has happened elsewhere in the country innumerable times. Incidents like a rape act as a lightning rod. If the suspected culprit is a migrant labourer, it becomes child’s play to inflame local sentiments, and target entire communities, stigmatising them for the crimes of a few. It is not difficult to raise the bogey of the “outsider” and jobs in danger even in an affluent state when job growth is not keeping pace with aspirations, and where there are deep pockets of poverty amid the plenty. The number of families in the state living below the poverty line (BPL) rose by 18,932 in the past two years, the Gujarat government admitted in the Assembly earlier this year in response to starred questions by Opposition MLAs.
Anti-migrant sentiments bring public attention back to India’s most pressing challenge: jobs.
Young India is hungry for jobs that pay, and there are not enough — a harsh reality that even official documents are forced to acknowledge.
“It is clear that providing India’s young and burgeoning labour force with good, high productivity jobs will remain a pressing medium-term challenge,” noted the Economic Survey 2017-18.
Trust-building meetings along with the police are being held in many cities in Gujarat and the workers who had fled out of fear are coming back. These are promising signs, but sustainable peace would take a lot more work.
The fact is that Gujarat needs migrant labourers as much as the migrant labourers need Gujarat.
What do we make of Indians problematising other Indians as “outsiders” at a time when high-decibel nationalism rents the air?
“We are all Indians. But we say ‘my spot is here and your spot is there’. The problem is the increasing unwillingness to accommodate others in one’s economic space and cultural space,” says Prof Binod Khadria, professor of economics and education at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and a migration expert. Add to this, the impact of social media and the internet. Both of these can be passports to mobility as well as amplifiers of existing prejudices. Remember August 2012, when thousands of panic-stricken people from the Northeast fled Bengaluru, which figures in the global list of the top 25 high-tech cities in the world, following rumours.
Internal migrants in India are estimated to be above 450 million. The poor will always vote with their feet whether one likes it or not. Migration is inevitable, given the highly skewed development status of states in India. It comes as no surprise that the more populous northern states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar send out a huge chunk of their workforce to states in the south and west which are more affluent and where work is easier to find.
The stark reality is that with agriculture not able to provide a livelihood in many parts of the country, migration is here to stay. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are likely to remain among the biggest source states from where there is migrant outflow in the near future. The same is the case with states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal.
Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Delhi are likely to remain popular destination states.
In a democracy, you cannot tell people not to move to greener pastures; migrants have to be accommodated and given security and basic amenities. It helps no one to have them live in a permanent state of vulnerability. The Gujarat government must make sure that anti-migrant sentiments are not stoked, prejudices are not tapped. Migrant enclaves must get all the protection they need.
Migration can foster dialogue between communities who are cultural aliens to each other in this country. Migrants bring in new ideas and energy. To see a community only through the lens of the few who have committed crimes is lopsided. Migrants and host communities must be encouraged to mingle so that they get to know each other better.
This does not mean that unplanned migration is the way ahead. It only means that policymakers must factor in the reality of migrant labourers and manage the process more smoothly. This will be difficult if the politics of exclusion, the “otherising” of anyone who is different, from a different place, doesn’t stop.
José Saramago, the Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate, once wrote: “Let him who has not a single speck of migration to blot his family escutcheon cast the first stone… If you didn’t migrate then your father did, and if your father didn’t need to move from place to place, then it was only because your grandfather before him had no choice but to go, put his old life behind him in search of the bread that his own land denied him...” It is worth keeping Saramago’s lines in mind.