11/25/2022, 17.35
INDIAN MANDALA
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Indian railways, the graveyard of domestic migrants

by Louis Prakash *

Migrants do not die only on sinking boats. In India millions of people from poorer states such as Bihar move to the big cities. As a result, almost every day, bodies are found along the tracks. To get the bodies back, families are asked to pay huge fees. For Fr Louis Prakash, nothing was learnt from the pandemic when people were forced to go through hell to walk home.

Patna (AsiaNews) – One of the least visible sides of worldwide migration is movements within countries, as people leave poor areas for big cities looking for work. Fr Louis Prakash, SJ, who hails from Patna province, is the co-founder of the South Asian People's Initiative (SAPI) and regional director for South Asia at the Indian Social Institute (New Delhi and Bengaluru).

Interstate and intrastate migration in India is a common phenomenon. Most marginalised people come from the less developed states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Assam, which are some of the topmost migrant-sending states.

Unemployment, underemployment, extremely low wages, non-payment of wages, landlessness, assetlessness, minimum land holding, poor returns from agriculture, caste oppression, feudal exploitation, lack of educational facilities, lack of industries, lack of financial support, and above all, lack of alternative employment and income are some of the factors that force the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised to migrate to eke out a living.

Most people from these categories migrate so that the family members left behind can survive. If they earn little more, they are able to educate their children. Some of the studies of the recent past also point to pull factor from urban centres. This is all the more the case with regard to youth who take up to migration for cash in hand, better clothing, and mobile phones in addition to the reasons stated above.

Madhesh Manjhi hailed from Masaurhi, which is just 30 km from Patna, Bihar’s state capital. Finding no gainful or regular employment, he left in the first week of November 2022 with some villagers to travel to Katpadi, in Tamil Nādu, to work as a wage labourer. But on 7 November, his family got the information that railway police found his body was in Bapatla, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh.

Shocked by this news, the family approached a NGO working in Patna district to see what had happened and what could be done. The NGO working on the distress migrant issue in Bihar got in touch with NGOs in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nādu, and Karnataka to ascertain the truth of the matter. They also inquired s to how the dead body could be brought to home to Masaurhi.

Thanks to the efforts of many individuals and civil society groups, Madhesh Manjhi’s relatives were found and efforts were made to get them to Bapatla where his body was kept in the government hospital mortuary so that they could claim his remains and the compensation from the railways 700,000 rupees (US$ 8,600). Irrespective of repeated attempts, the members of civil society groups failed miserably.

The following reasons were identified for this depressing scenario:

  1. 1. they did not have the money to travel;
  2. 2. they were not educated;
  3. 3. they did not know the place;
  4. 4. they did not know the language;
  5. 5. they were not sure if they would get the money;
  6. 6. they were not sure if anyone would help them.

But the underlying fact is that the most marginalised and vulnerable people in this country are resigned to their fate, conscious that nothing will happen in their favour. Ultimately, the police disposed of the body.

Distress migrants are those who migrate due to extremely depressing condition at home. They also end up doing the most menial and difficult jobs where they migrate to. Thus, the working and living conditions to which the migrant workers are subjected is another depressing story.

Some of them do not make it; they die or are killed in accidents, losing their life even before they reach their destination. If, by chance, they manage to get there, they have to struggle hard to eke out a living. Moving to southern India without knowing the language adds to their woes and worries.

Madhesh Manjhi’s death as a distressed migrant labourer is not an isolated case. Every day, cases of this type are reported by those agencies that are working for safe migration.

Sonot Tudu, from Dumka district in Jharkhand, was also going to work in southern India as a migrant labourer. In October 2022, he left home on a Saturday and on Tuesday the family got a call from the Railway Police Force at Erode, in Tamil Nādu, that his body had been found on the railway track and that it was held at a hospital.

It took us 10 days to mobilise the family members to go to Erode and claim Sonot’s dead body. Since it had decomposed, it could not be brought back home but created and the ashes were carried by his son who works in Karnataka. The last rites were performed at home. Sonot left behind a widow and five children with no economic means to feed them, educate them, and bring them up.

In such situations, widows and orphans are left to fend for themselves. But Sonot Tudu was fortunate enough to have his last rites conducted at home for the repose of his soul. The family now does not feel guilty since the last rites were conducted at home, in accordance with their cultural, social and religious norms. Madhesh Manjhi was not fortunate enough to have his last rites. His family lives in utter poverty and helplessness, continuing to suffer from not being able to claim his body and conduct the last rites.

In a study undertaken by an NGO in 2020, the following were some of the critical issues that were highlighted by returnee migrants:

  1. 1. They lost livelihood, wages, security, etc., and some of them even lost their lives;
  2. 2. a vast number of migrant labourers come from Dalit, tribal, Most Backward Classes (MBC), and minority communities who are mostly landless, less educated, poor, rural-based and hence are not able to handle the complications of urban life and had to walk back home;
  3. 3. in the formal sector people can work from home but this is not possible in the unorganised sector and thus migrant labourers are forced to return home;
  4. 4. migrant labourers are mostly unskilled and did not earn enough to face greater hardships like lack of food, water and transport;
  5. 5. migrant labourers who are the backbone of the country felt betrayed, ill-treated, starved, dislocated, destroyed, and ended up in depression;
  6. 6. children are the worst affected in times of crisis. During COVID-19 it was witnessed that child labourers were greatly exposed to abuse and violence. Many reports suggest that economically distressed families marry off adolescent girls to alleviate their situation;
  7. 7. returnee migrants were clueless about their livelihood back at home and about their future.

The blatant biased treatment of internal and external migrants by the rulers of this country has come under criticism. Those who got cheap and best education from the country’s best educational institutions decided to go abroad seeking greener pasture instead of paying back to the country that built them and their career for gainful employment and better life.

When COVID-19 affected the world, these non-resident Indians were flown back home by special flight, while domestic migrants were forced to walk thousands of miles. This is not just today. This is a social and historical reality. Indian society and history suffer from mental and menial labour. Since migrants are considered to be second-class, they were subjected to disgrace, disrespect and deplorable conditions.

What is more depressing is the fact that the rulers have not learnt any lessons from such dehumanising conditions and have not put in place a National Policy of Internal Migration. If we had a policy to address the factors behind distress migration, migrants’ issues like pre-departure decision and pre-departure training for safe migration, connectivity between place of origin and destination, state-level offices, especially in the state of origin, could be addressed.

For the sake of publicity and popularity, the present government keeps talking about “One Nation and One Ration Card”. If this were implemented, then migrants could benefit. This fact needs to be reiterated: if the country does not address the issue of distress migration, it is digging its own grave.

* Jesuit from Patna Province, co-founder of the South Asian People's Initiative (SAPI)

(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this article)

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