The Migrant Workers' Poverty is Created by The State

Mantasha Ansari

We saw the plight of migrant workers on our mobile phones and television screens. Their despair told us that they were oppressed by the state. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines oppression as "unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power" over others. It was the state which declared the sudden lockdown from March 25, rendering millions of workers in cities without job, without food and without shelter. Within just a few days, they were reduced into extreme poverty.

It was the state that created their poverty. The state is rich. It can spend 25,000 crores rupees to build the Central Vista and a new parliament in New Delhi. It is the state which transformed citizens into migrant workers overnight by a masterstroke of announcement from television screens. The prime minister in his four televised addresses to the nation, observes one writer, has not spared even a word for millions of workers on the road. The government doesn't see them.

These citizens build our homes in cities. They build dams. They work in factories. They build electricity grids, they build highways, they clean our roads. They do essential work to make our life better. They should be honoured for doing essential work. But they were reduced into extreme poverty. Why? Karl Marx answers: They do not own the means of production. They own nothing.

Marx was right for arguing that individuals sell their labour power for wages and create wealth, but they do not own the means of production. Today, this statement of Marx is more relevant than ever. If the state does not want the workers to go into poverty, they must own the means of production. But the state does not exist for the migrant workers. They are on their own.

India, a nation of 1.35 billion people, has a labour minister. It is right to have a labour minister to protect the interests of workers. But right during this lockdown crisis, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, the Minister of State (independent charge) for Labour and Employment, went missing. His job is to help the workers. He said nothing on this humanitarian tragedy. He had nothing to say.

Several states changed labour laws which were made to protect workers. Uttar Pradesh suspended key labour laws to benefit the owners of factories. The state government also introduced a 12-hour work, rejecting the achievement of civil rights movements to have the working shift reduced to eight hours. However, it was rolled back after a notice from the Allahabad High Court. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat also took advantages of the Coronavirus pandemic to change labour laws. The labour minister still said nothing.

It is clear the state is working for the owners of factories, owners of the means of production. It is clear that the state is not working for the Indians who do not own the means of production. The Karnataka government cancelled trains for migrant workers after a meeting with top builders, though the decision was reversed after public criticism. It is absolutely dehumanising. People have a fundamental right to walk. Those who make decisions about workers see them as animals. Those who live and work in airconditioned offices do not think of the poor.

When the migrants started walking thousands of kilometres for their homes, some people laughed at their condition. Others thought they are stupid individuals making uninformed decisions. But they had no choice. They had no food. They had no shelter. A pregnant migrant woman, walking from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, delivered her baby on the road and then she walked for another 150 kilometres. Ram Kripal, a 65-year-old senior citizen, walked over 1,500 kilometres from Mumbai and died of exhaustion. A 12-year-old child labourer walked 150 kilometres from Telangana to Chhattisgarh and died. There are numerous such stories, too many to count.

The poor are dying, not the poverty. According to a report, the central government announced a package of 5-kg extra foodgrains and one-kg of pulses free of cost for three months for every Indian enrolled in the public distribution system. But more than 100 million Indians are excluded from the public distribution system because the government insists on using the 2011 census data which is outdated. More than 122 million people lost their jobs in April, about 75% of them small traders and labourers, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. We will never know the exact numbers of the migrants who were left hungry by the lockdown, by the state.

It was a big tragedy. Millions of workers were stranded. They couldn't even walk back home. Two million workers registered in Maharashtra to go home. Two million registered to leave the state of Gujarat which witnessed mass protests by workers who were hungry for days. According to the Railway Board, four million workers travelled by trains during the first three weeks of May and another 3.6 million were set to travel in the month's last week. These are the numbers for those who went by trains, not of the migrant workers on the road. Their numbers will never be known.

Additionally, groups of workers collected money and arranged buses to travel. According to a media report, over four million workers travelled by buses. "How can so many be so invisible? All around us, in our great metropolises, we see cranes on the top of buildings stealthily climbing skywards but we do not see the workers inside," wrote columnist Anil Dharker. As per the 2011 census, the number of inter-state migrants was 65 million, which could be much higher now.

It is clear that the state does not see the invisibles, i.e. the migrant labourers. The state was created out of social contract. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who famously gave the idea of social contract, said the "man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains" and went on to argue that "laws are binding only when they are supported by the general will of the people." It is clear that people created the state, but the state has become their oppressor now.

In a recent article, Shelley Walia, a professor at the Panjab University, observed: "People stand abandoned both by the state as well as the industry, destitute and wretched. The disadvantaged, always at risk, begin to exist entirely at the mercy of those who govern." The character of the state has changed since Rousseau gave the theory of social contract. American thinker Albert Jay Nock noted: "If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs, we can discern one fundamental fact, namely, a great redistribution of power between society and the state." The state has acquired disproportionate power over society. Power must be redistributed justly.

The sad situation of the migrant workers shows that the state does not care. It shows that the state has excess power. The excess power turns into violence. Violence is the main source of poverty. It is oppression by the state at whose mercy millions of migrant workers were left powerless. The lesson is: if you do not own the means of production, you are truly, as the prime minister said, atmanirbhar which means dependent on your own two legs and two hands.

Mantasha Ansari is a writer based at the University of Lucknow.

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Jun 2, 2020

Mantasha Ansari

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