Have you ever fantasized about turning invisible and the powers that might give you? We saw a recent attempt at such a fantasy – failed miserably at the box office – in Bollywood’s Ghayab. Of course, who can forget the original sci-fi leap of imagination in H.G.Wells’ novella, The Invisible Man, written in 1897.The latter ended tragically for the protagonist. There is a huge sub-set of people in India who are rendered tragically disempowered by a different kind of invisibility imposed on them, the political kind. Their voices are not heard, their votes do not count, their numbers are not captured and their lives do not matter.
So, who are they? Where do they come from? Where do they go? Why are they invisible?
We often read about migrations that take place from one country to another on account of displacement due to wars or internal political turmoil. The biggest human migration in recent history took place after India was divided in 1947, uprooting 15 million people.
What the newspapers don't cover are the internal migrations that happen within the country, between states and within states. The numbers below will give you an idea of the big picture.
What the national statistics do not capture are the people who move, in large numbers, in search of work, from village to village or village to city. If we wade through the data on the overlapping categories of workers in the Unorganised sector (agriculture, construction) and the Informal economy or among the Working poor and Casual labourers, we arrive at some informed guesstimates.
One study by Prof. Ravi S. Srivastava, 2005, puts the total numbers of seasonal migrants at 30 million.
We expect those numbers to have doubled in the last decade. Fuzzy data and the itinerant lifestyles deprive migrants of their identity and support systems, exclude the workers and their families from programmes addressing settled populations and make it easier for employers to deny them the legal wage and other welfare provisions.
Migrants leave home with their families – including the little ones –for unknown destinations. Some find work at brick kilns and construction sites, and others in factories, mines and agriculture. The construction Industry, the second largest employer after agriculture, employs around 44 million workers, of which 2/3rds are unskilled migrants.
The relationship of Mobile Creches with construction workers and their children goes back to 1969, when Mobile Crèches (MC) opened its first crèche at the Gandhi Darshan site at Rajghatin Delhi. Now, 46 years on, the living and working conditions of these construction workers have not improved much, and the plight of migrants, the larger pool these workers are drawn from, continues to be largely ignored by policymakers. Mobile Creches has developed a deeper understanding about the industry and what pushes these migrants to leave their homes and hearths to confront the unknown in the city.
BimalRai’s film, ‘Do Beegha Zameen', 1953, an all time classic, answers the question, Why.
A worker at one of the MC sites said - “Madam, do tarah ka aana hota hai. Ek sukh se aana, Ek dukh se aana. Hamara aana dukh se aana hai. (“Madam, migration can be driven by distress or by hope and opportunity. For us, it is out of distress.) Migration is a survival strategy for the rural poor pulled towards the city in the hope of work and pushed out of villages due to a complex mix of factors such as indebtedness, deforestation and depletion of natural resources and stagnation of rural economies. Some of the states where they come from are: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Bengal, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The key destination states include Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana and Karnataka.
Young rural families who move to cities in search of work come together as a group often led by a thekedar at the local level. The big companies employ labourers through sub-contractors who further contact the thekedar for the same. One of the thekedars described this chain as‘rail kedabbe’(coaches in a train),wherein the engine is the construction company, which decides the destination (site) and build links down the line with contractors, sub-contractors and thekedars. The exploitation starts from the very first link –the thekedars. This whole chain is replicated across sites and cities.
What awaits them at the end of the journey is no promised land.
The destination site, their home for the next 2-3 years, paints a dismal picture: narrow and dingy tin sheds instead of the fresh air of the villages; no electricity in their homes, inadequate toilet facility and limited potable water; frequent incidents of water borne diseases like diarrhea, skin rashes and respiratory problems; men, women and children bathe in open; inadequate toilets, open defecation and no drainage. Work is no respite for them with long working hours andwages below the legal minimum, with late or non-payment of wages.
The irony is that these issues get very low priority. The existing State policies and schemes have failed to provide legal or social protection to this vulnerable group. The Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act 1996, Minimum Wages Act, 1948, and the Inter State Migrant Workers’ Act, 1979, etc. have not been adequately implemented on the ground.These migrants often lose out on other basic services provided by the state – nutrition, schooling and health - as most benefits are linked to the place of residence.
Who pays the biggest price? Children, especially those affected by distress migration. An estimate says 10 million such children are in need of care and protection at sites in India. Due to the constant movement between the village or city, or between sites within the city,children lose out on sustained nutrition, care, health and education; they suffer physical and emotional neglect, disrupted breastfeeding and incomplete immunization. Women have no childcare facilities at the site which forces them to leave the child alone or in the care of a slightly older sibling, completely unsuitable for this adult responsibility.
These migrants aspire for a better quality of life through better wages, job security, ample water, a decent home, safe space and education for their children. They are looking to make two ends meet and save a little bit to send ‘home’ or set aside - for a marriage, birth or death. Is that too much to ask?We need better implementation of labour laws by Government, especially for provisions related to minimum and equal wages, with easy access to insurance schemes, maternity support and crèches for children.
Migration can be a driver of economic growth and development. We need an enabling environment to unleash those hidden forces – in the breakdown of traditional social structures and the tapping of new economic opportunities – in the internal and global economies. We need to realize that these migrant pools of labour are playing a critical economic role – the construction industry will come to a standstill without them – but, beyond that, they are citizens of India. We owe them their constitutional rights and human rights.