Migrant workers and the Supreme Court order

indica News Bureau-

The Supreme Court has ordered that migrant workers should be provided free train or bus transport, along with food and water by the states to return home.

Justice Markandey Katju

This order is being widely applauded, as indeed it deserves to be. But assuming it is implemented, it raises a much deeper question: what will these migrants do on reaching home?

To go into this aspect, we have to delve into the past. In 1947, that is at the time of Independence, the total population of united India (which included the present Pakistan and Bangladesh) was about 40 crores (400 million ). Today in 2020 India alone has about 135 crores (1350 million). In other words, our population has increased about 4 times since Independence.

Also, in 1947 only about 15% of India’s population lived in the cities and about 85% lived in villages. Today about 35-40% of our population lives in cities, and 60-65% lives in villages.

These figures indicate that after 1947 there has been mass migration of tens of crores of people from the rural to the urban areas in India in search of livelihood. No livelihood was available in their home villages to these people because of two reasons (1) pressure on the cultivable land which could not support the greatly increased population (2) partial replacement of human labor by machinery.

Consequently these tens of crores of people came to the cities of India in search of a livelihood, which a majority of them (perhaps upto 90% i.e. 40-45 crores) got in the informal or unorganized sector of our economy i.e. as daily or casual workers, having no job security. They used to work every day to earn a pittance every day to feed themselves and their families.

Now as a result of this lockdown these daily/casual workers have lost their jobs, and consequently started coming close to starvation. In desperation they decided to go home to their villages, and lacs started on foot ( because train and bus transport had been stopped ), trekking hundreds of kilometers, some dying on the way due to hunger, exhaustion, etc.( reminiscent of the migrants in John Steinbeck’s great novel ’Grapes of Wrath’ ).

The Supreme Court order, assuming it is implemented properly, will only ensure that these migrants reach home to their villages. But what will they do there? There is no work for them there?

When these migrants were in the cities, they were earning something, however little, with which they fed themselves and their families (some had left their families in their villages, to whom they sent some money). Now with their livelihood gone, and no work in the village, they will only become a burden on their families on reaching home, instead of being a support. This is the surest recipe of food related crimes on a large scale and breakdown of law and order in many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, (as it happened in France before the French Revolution of 1789 ).

Even if the lockdown is lifted it is doubtful these migrants will get back their jobs in the cities, since the economy, which had already tanked before the lockdown, has been sent spiraling further downwards by the lockdown. Many industries have closed down or cut down production, with massive lay offs. Where then are the jobs in the cities for these migrants who have gone to their village but would like to later return to the cities for a livelihood?

I reiterate what I have said several times before : there is now no alternative but to now form a National Government including leaders of all political parties, scientists, economists, administrators etc. as Winston Churchill had formed in May 1940 when England was faced with the threat of a Nazi invasion, or as set up, in Israel recently. Prime Minister Modi must realize that the economic catastrophe looming ahead is too big for him and his party to handle alone. The whole nation must unite, as England united in May 1940, if we are to face the huge danger ahead. Modiji must therefore set aside political and ideological differences and rise to the occasion by forming a National Government. If he does so, he will be hailed as another Churchill.


[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are their own].

[Photo courtesy: Sukarma Foundation]