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On migrant workers, ticket prices and bureaucratic language

Communicating in simple language would never work for our babus, who don’t have many skills anyway.

The convoluted language in this circular from the Home Secretary on movement of migrant workers was mocked all around social media yesterday.

MHA notification

The mocking was well deserved. Communicating in simple language would never work for our babus, who don’t have many skills anyway.

But there is a deeper point here, which most people probably missed. Why did the sentence have to be so long and convoluted? The difficulty in constructing the sentence came from the fact that it was trying to define “migrant,” a term which has essentially no meaning. Who is a migrant and who is a local? It’s hard to differentiate these terms because they are both one and same.

Indeed, Indians anywhere in India are at home everywhere. A guy who boards a train from say Bihar and arrives in Mumbai looking for work is not in any particularly different category from anyone else in Mumbai. That is in the Fundamental Rights in the all important Part IIIA of the Constitution: right to reside and settle in any part of India.

In fact, India’s voter ID procedures make this absolutely clear. Even if you have nothing to your name and you sleep on the pavement, the BLO is supposed to verify where you sleep at night. If you are an Indian and you habitually sleep there, you are a local. There is no such thing as a “migrant.”

This may seem like a sterile academic matter, but it is not. It is at the heart of all the misconceptions that have come up around the issue of so called migrant workers, which has now become a political hot button issue.

When the lockdown began, lakhs of workers nationwide, daily wagers, those in unorganized sector, etc, found themselves out of a job. Within days, reports emerged that some of these so called migrants were trying to walk “home,” despite the impossibly long distances involved.

This should never have happened. They were Indians living and/or working in a place of their choice within India.  The migrant worker crisis began precisely because several state governments and media saw these people as some kind of outsider. When the crisis came, it was the duty of the respective state governments to take care of their needs. No, they didn’t need to go “home” because they were already at home! And no, Mr. Kejriwal, giving them one meal and dropping them off at the Uttar Pradesh border doesn’t count as taking care of them. They were not in Uttar Pradesh: they were in Delhi. Just because they may have family members in Bihar or UP or Jharkhand doesn’t mean Delhi government does not owe them anything.

Yes, we understand that times are tough and everyone has finite resources. And the last thing that should happen is richer states forcing people to move to poorer states.

Which brings us to the issue of who pays for the Railway to ferry “migrant” workers back “home”.

These people shouldn’t have had to go at all! In times of lockdown, large numbers of people migrating, that too in crowded trains, is a very bad idea. That too when most of them will be traveling from the worst affected areas to poorer states.

And if at all, these so called “migrants” had to be sent “home,” the least that the government of the “host state” can do is pay for their tickets. The reason this even became a dispute is because people seem to think there is such a thing as “host state” and “home state.”

And there is absolutely no justification for states asking the so called migrants to pay for tickets back “home.”

Of course, there are things here that the Central Government could have done better. The Railway is not selling tickets at stations, only transporting people brought by state governments. For example, the Railway could have sent a consolidated bill to states some days down the line.

For now, it is satisfying to know that the political firestorm has ensured that the affected people, already worst hit by the crisis, will not have to pay anything. In this firestorm, there is an important lesson in how an alert media can hold a government accountable for the slightest slip ups, thus serving the public interest.

Which is why it is so disturbing to see how some of the media has been so shy to hold  ‘secular’ Chief Ministers accountable during the crisis. This is making us less safe as a nation, not more. Only today, there was a media portal which carried, in all seriousness, an article mentioning Uddhav Thackeray as one of the best performers.  Apparently, because “it’s not about the extent of the spread of the infection.” Their words, not mine. Let that sink in.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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