Welcome step back

The Karnataka government’s U-turn on cancelling special trains to transport stranded migrants home suggests that better sense has prevailed over distorted priorities. The state has, however, sought only 13 trains to various states between May 8 and 13, which can reportedly transport only about 13,000 migrants, a fraction of the workers in the state. This amounts to little more than tokenism in the face of widespread criticism of its earlier actions. It cannot be absolved of its earlier actions, nor of deploying the full force of its security establishment to prevent them from leaving because of the possibility of a labour shortage. The administration had argued that these labourers were needed to restart constructions projects. In doing so, the B S Yediyurappa government appears to have succumbed to the pressures of the powerful real estate lobby. Restricting the movements of migrant labourers was wrong on many counts. If anything, the state government’s actions have revealed the country’s worst-kept secret about the weak rights and entitlements of the vast majority of migrant labourers, who fall in the unorganised sector, where contractual obligations have little sanctity and labour contractors act as powerful intermediaries.

But even within these constraints, migrant labourers always had the basic fundamental right of freedom of movement. Mr Yediyurappa’s earlier decision to force migrants to stay back and work puts them in the same position as bonded labourers. Beyond the question of dodgy legality lies the political immorality embedded in this decision. Many local Bharatiya Janata Party politicians praised Mr Yediyurappa’s decision as the “need of the hour”. But the choice between reviving the economy and coercing migrants to play their part in it is a false choice. Many of these migrants, who come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal, have been without pay for over a month and a half, on subsistence rations and a long way away from their families. In fact, many migrants across the country are walking back to their homes, covering over 1,000 km in some cases, and risking their lives by choice. 

The Karnataka government has pointed out that it has deposited Rs 2,000 each in the bank accounts of 1.18 million labourers. An additional Rs 3,000 that will be deposited in the bank accounts of construction workers, as part of a Rs 1,630-crore special economic package, to encourage them to stay back. But this is scant compensation when it appropriates the workers’ right to exercise their choice to leave or stay and work. It is worth noting that this is also the time when extra hands are needed in the fields to prepare the ground for the kharif sowing season, which would have seen some labourers head home even in normal times. The fact that realtors would be forced to pay premiums if workers leave in large numbers in these unprecedented times played a part in the hectic lobbying. Worse, Karnataka’s earlier stand appears to have fond emulators in Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat. These states have written to the UP government to prevent the flight of labour from their states for the same reasons. It’s a relief that Karnataka did not decide to stick to its earlier decision, which would have amounted to a self-goal, since stopping exit is as good as banning entry, which is unlikely to encourage investors.

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