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With economic growth opening new vistas at home and abroad, more and more migrant labourers are giving up traditional occupations to take up more attractive options and this could hurt in some major areas
It is indeed interesting to read the comments made by a variety of political leaders about migrants to Indian cities—with particular reference to what is often sought to be generalised as ‘Biharis’, in the light of the reality on the streets. It is also interesting to see that these political leaders don’t seem to have the faintest clue of what is actually happening out on their streets as far as migrants are concerned, especially these very same ‘Biharis’.
Here’s one of my experiences. The Indian Oil Chowk roundabout is a famous landmark in Noida, now being redeveloped with a brand new underpass. The roundabout has been turned into a modern traffic-light crossing with a Metro line passing right overhead some time ago. However, one thing that has not changed is that the chowk is also a gathering place for hiring daily-wage labourers. Not long ago, it used to be called ‘Little Bihar’.
A few months ago, there would be hordes of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers available here, and you would literally get to pick and choose as well as negotiate the rates, specially as morning moved on to forenoon. But you risked getting your car scratched or damaged by those left behind, such was the desperation.
Today, the daily wage rate for an unskilled labourer is between Rs250 and Rs300, and by 9am they are all gone. (By the way, at the same chowk, there now stand dozens of auto-rickshaws and cycle-rickshaws, working as short distance ferries for the Metro train. The average saving of a cycle-rickshaw operator is upwards of Rs200 a day.) The labourers stand at Harola, where they don’t give a discount if you take them later on in the day.
The minimum wages for unskilled labourers in Noida are so low, that it really doesn’t even deserve a mention here. Put it like this, the shoes you are wearing probably cost more; certainly a meal for two without alcohol at a moderately upscale restaurant in the plush Bandra suburb of Mumbai would cost more.
Still, till a few months ago there would be lines outside factories where ‘helper wanted’ boards were put up on chalk-scribbled dirty walls. Today, there are prettier boards aimed at attracting attention, and guards at the gates of factories have been instructed to be polite to anybody who applies. And yet, there is a shortage, despite guards exhorting candidates passing by with offers of free tea, biscuits and snacks, to come in and take a look at the work. Free uniforms, improved ‘canteens’ and cleaner working environs—this and more—to attract unskilled labourers who will work well and hard.
But this is not just about the return of migrant labourers to Bihar, or Orissa, or Jharkhand, which of course is a fact. But with savings of a few thousand rupees, and hard, smart, working habits inculcated after years of slogging in somebody else’s factories, a whole new generation of small entrepreneurs is being born in the backroads and small towns of these erstwhile migrants supply states. And they are already used to working long hours, without the fear of being ridiculed on the grounds of caste, creed or tribe.
More than that, it is the opportunities that are now available ‘upcountry’ in India and abroad, which is to some extent responsible for the fading away of the ‘Bihari’ migrant, and it has also given them a better life. Your average semi-skilled migrant labourer has now acquired technical skill-sets and manages a better savings potential, whether it is up in the freezing temperatures in the mountains where India races to build power plants before the Chinese do, or in the new industrial enclaves in Uttarakhand, and the ports and infrastructure projects along the coast.
By the way, the advent of good roads has not only brought out a large number of small commercial vehicles, but also a whole new segment of support industries—from maintenance to consumption. Did you know, a ‘Bihari’ paneer tikka is one that is served with fish tikka. And sattoo. See if you can figure that out; you may have to look at it from a converted vegetarian’s point of view, especially if he doesn’t want the neighbours to know.
A few days ago, a small group of migrant labourers sought me out early in the morning. Clean, polite, and obviously very poor, as well as scared. Somehow, they had tracked down the fact that I may be able to help them out with their EPFO (Employees Provident Fund Organisation) savings, which was becoming an issue as the factory owners were playing fast and loose with the paperwork to prevent them from going back home en masse.
Some of them had their EPFO slips going back a few years, some didn’t, but they all were very sure they didn’t want to come back and that they wanted their savings. They wanted me to speak to their factory owner. What I did, however, was to point them in the direction of the EPFO corporate office in Delhi, with the RTI application formats (each costing Rs10) to be sent by post.
What they did, however, was go back to their factory owner, who then rapidly did the needful to square up their paperwork—since nobody really wants to mess with the EPFO. Certainly, that factory owner would later on add to the ‘migrant troublemaker’ stories doing the rounds, right?
There are similar stories about Oriya migrant labourers in the diamond industry around Surat, and more migrant labourers in the ship-breaking yards around Alang. The shortage of ‘good’ (read docile and bonded) labourers in and around Punjab is the stuff that is now bringing out yet another revolution there, that of more agricultural automation, and lusty ballads on the subject.
Likewise, there is still no shortage of migrant labourers from other parts of the country, but many of them fail a few simple tests. For example, they are unable or unwilling to work 12-14 hours a day. Often, they cannot or will not lift 50kg weights. They are also more informed about their rights. More often than not, the new generation migrant, from the North-East for example, is rapidly moving into the service sector, or the middle management, leaving the locals in the lurch, again out-skilled.
Your migrants are flying away and what will that do to the great Indian economic story?
(Veeresh Malik started life as a seafarer, and in the course of a work life, founded and sold Pacific Shipping and Infonox Software, to return to his first love—writing.)