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India’s migrant worker keeps on walking

By Jaykhosh Chidambaran
May 28, 2020 9:15 am

Crisis management and human solidarity have positive correlations, and the ongoing war against coronavirus pandemic in the Indian subcontinent bears ample testimony to this human virtue. But as a blotch to this meritorious individual and collective efforts, Indians have ruefully abandoned their defenseless and voiceless brethren – its migrant workers.

One of the most defining images of nationwide lockdown, that will indelibly be etched in Indian psyche is the long exodus of millions of poor, emaciated migrant workers, traversing hundreds of kilometers on foot, back to their impoverished villages. In the scorching heat of the Indian summer, these hapless souls, at the mercy of strangers for food and no shelter, fifty days into the lockdown, are still walking…

Their plight is a tale of sheer injustice, nonchalant disdain of the government machinery and represents a grave moral turpitude of the Indian masses. The spectacle of the migrant workers – who built the nations palaces, condominiums, shopping malls, houses, roads, bridges and highways – standing in long serpentine queues, in exhaustion and hunger, compromising their dignity and honor for a packet of food, is one of the worst humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in recent Indian history.

Ideas of compassion and mercy are wrong connotations in the lexicons of a social democracy with reference to citizenship. When egalitarian principles of law are applied to all its constituents, the hallowed foundations of solidarity of citizens are neither mercy nor compassion, but justice. Whenever the sanctified words of mercy and compassion are evoked in a relationship between the state and its subjects, it explicitly denotes power distance, conjuring up painful realities of the privileged and the underprivileged, unequal societies and an indifferent population.

The institutional obligations of the state cannot be reduced to some form of discretion extended to a section of its disadvantaged citizens. These migrant workers are entitled to inviolable rights of good food, income security, better living conditions, access to social systems as much as any other self-respecting Indian. Here, the successive Indian governments have miserably failed, exploiting these brethren only as vote banks, no more than broken cogs its socio-economic wheel and are easily dispensable, without any fear of repercussion and backlash.

In the Indian context, constitutional safeguarding of fundamental rights exists only on paper. Social polarizations of caste, creed and sect are ever widening while the state’s apathy is appalling.

Since majority of these migrant workers belong to scheduled castes – which is a form of protective discrimination- the prospect of amelioration of their woes and hopes of economic advancement is a grim reality. One could legitimately suspect a crude form of Realpolitik at play, that the ulterior motive of political parties is to keep these downtrodden class, always poor, malnourished and hopeless. Thus they could eternally be used as pawns for political power, offering them hope of a better future, which, these merchants of power will never fulfill.

Economic liberalization of 1991, that had ushered in institutional and structural reforms, was an inevitable step towards integrating Indian economy with the irreversible process of globalization, aimed at improving quality of life of people and redirecting Indian destiny to a path of growth and progress. But it also meant loosening interventions of the state in the lives of its citizens, a liberation from the flawed ‘License Raj’ system by espousing the principles of free market liberalism.

But little did the messiahs of economic liberalization realize that India was also grappling with first generation problems- lack of universal healthcare, primary education, clean drinking water, electrification, affordable housing, infrastructure, sanitization which haunt policymakers to this day. Therefore, the renewed involvement of the state in those sectors deemed as public good, like education and healthcare was grossly warranted and absence of it has aggravated social inequality, widening the chasms of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in Indian social fabric.

If citizens are reduced to consumers by free market forces, then by the principles of economic theory, purchasing power parity of citizens are an important metric for the success of the system, operating under conditions of demand and supply. In such limited applicability of a welfare state, social inequality will rise with skewed and elitist economic development, when masses are deprived of quality education, healthcare and skill sets, eventually hampering intended economic progress. The Indian migrant worker and his blighted destiny is a testimony to this policy paralysis. The role of government in citizens’ lives is therefore indispensable to the extent of creating a free and fair society; healthy, educated and informed.

Exterminating social evils and ascribing dignity of humanity to every individual are the building blocks of creating a modern state, egalitarian in practice than theory. The citadels of oppression and marginalization have always crumbled in history, from the dismantling of the lord and vassal in Europe to abolishing chattel enslavement of African Americans in the United States and in recent history, emancipation of South African blacks from the cruel apartheid regime. These nations subsequently registered rapid socio-economic upheavals as almost all regions of Europe and Americas were transformed into developed economies.

The predicament of the Indian migrant worker is tantamount to slavery of the mediaeval times or barbarism of racial discriminations and depredations of colonial America. The roots of Indian evil run deep and finds expression in the ancient texts of Manusmrithi and the Theory of Rebirth, that are both irrational and unfalsifiable myths. As a result, the social system of stratification maybe eternally closed, entrenched in caste hierarchies.

The think-tanks, public intellectuals, economists, politicians and common man debate and deliberate this human tragedy in the comfort of their homes. Human indifference is as much as sombre and pitiable as the human drama played out on Indian highways. Amidst the starvation, destitution, privation and dishonor, India’s migrant worker keeps on walking, and in calm awareness that he is not making a long walk to his freedom…

About the author : Jaykhosh Chidambaran is an accomplished management professional with over 20 years of diverse industry experience in MNC’s and is currently an EdTech Growth and Strategy Consultant for India & Middle East. He is an alumnus of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of TAS and TAS does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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