Although West Bengal accounted for the third-highest numbers of migrant workers who returned home during the exodus last year, they still remain neglected by the political class in terms of real welfare
In the middle of a raging second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, West Bengal is witnessing a pitched electoral battle. As state-specific lockdowns begin again, it has once more forced migrant workers to pour into trains to travel back home from some parts of the country. In the heat and dust of the elections in West Bengal, have migrant workers got their due attention?
In 2020, West Bengal accounted for the third-highest number of migrant worker returnees, next only to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A look at the election manifestos in the state shows that the pandemic has forced key political parties to take note of their plight.
A dedicated ministry for migrant workers, a financial ‘interim support’ for jobless migrant workers and enlisting the work done for them during the lockdown – these are some of the promises specific to migrant workers that feature in election manifestos. While it is ‘rare’ to talk about migrant workers in election manifestos, experts feel that their plight has not got the electoral spotlight one would expect, particularly in elections happening after the migrant exodus of last year.
Out of 1.14 crore migrant workers who returned to their home states, West Bengal alone accounted for 13.3 lakh returnees. The issue also manifests itself more sharply in West Bengal as it is the fourth most populous state in the country and is surrounded by high out-migration states like Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand.
“The lockdown and COVID-19 pandemic are an eye opener for everyone about what is the situation of migrant workers in India. Without an electoral focus, there is no scope to solve this problem or bring it to the mainstream. However, it is also a fact that in electoral politics till now issues like this do not have any major impact,” said Suprio Basu, West Bengal coordinator of the Lokniti programme by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
The Left parties have promised to set up a dedicated ministry for migrant workers and have also said that they will enlist workers from West Bengal who are working in other states. Congress, the Left’s alliance partner in the state polls, has promised to provide temporary monetary assistance to jobless migrant workers till they find a job again.
“The gravity of the situation has been exposed by the pandemic. We felt there should be an exclusive administrative unit that looks into the issues of migrant workers. It will be very justified and needful,” said Prasanta Nandi Chowdhury, national secretary of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which is affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM.
Chowdhury explained that a dedicated ministry for migrant workers will look at three categories– those who go to other states from West Bengal, those who come to West Bengal for work and those who are going abroad from the state, especially to the Gulf countries. He also added that there is also a need to modify existing laws on migrant workers.
Congress in its manifesto has pledged an “interim support” of Rs 5,000 per month to families of jobless migrant, unorganised and contractual workers for the duration of the pandemic till they get employed again. Congress has also taken a leaf out of its flagship minimum income guarantee NYAY scheme for poorest families, which the party hopes will help migrant workers as well.
“After the lockdown last year, many migrant workers from West Bengal have not gone back to the states where they worked. The migrant workers do not have jobs and their families are suffering. This led us to make these manifesto promises that could support them. Our focus is on long term sustainable development,” said Chandan Ghosh, president of the state unit of All India Professional Congress (AIPC), which was instrumental in drafting the party’s state manifesto.
Basu said that while these are ‘first of a kind of promises in West Bengal politics’, he cautioned that there would be challenges in implementing promises like these because it has not been done before. He also said that it was interesting that such promises were made by the two political parties which are not considered front runners in this election.
Schemes for migrant workers
Opinion polls have tipped incumbent TMC and BJP as the front runners in the West Bengal elections. When asked what they had to offer for migrant workers in the state, senior TMC leaders said that the state government assisted them during the lockdown and is running health and food-related schemes that would benefit them, while state leaders from BJP argued that central schemes like the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) would overhaul access to services for migrant workers.
“Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has declared that no resident of the state should go migrate for work because of starvation. Our government is going to be there for each and every citizen of West Bengal. That is our declaration, not just in the manifesto but the government also,” said Dola Sen, senior Rajya Sabha member from TMC.
“Our government has implemented a scheme for the poor giving 5 kilograms of food grain per person, per month. We began implementation in April 2020 and it will continue till June 2021 to cover 10 crore beneficiaries. This scheme has especially helped migrant workers,” Sen, also a top trade union leader of the party, added. She listed that the portability of the health scheme called Swasthya Sathi and the financial assistance given under the Prochesta Prokolpo scheme would help not just migrant workers but informal workers in general.
In the backdrop of the nearly 68-day long nationwide lockdown last year to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Union government announced a slew of policies and schemes aimed at benefitting migrant workers. This included a jobs scheme for those who returned home, free food grain scheme for the poor, portable ration cards and affordable rental housing.
BJP’s senior leaders from the state feel that such schemes run by the Centre will benefit migrant workers across the country including West Bengal, a move that they feel will get more impetus if the party is in power in the state too.
“With migrant workers, the first issue is that you have to know how many are there in a particular state. Our aim is to make sure that we create an environment where workers do not have to leave the state and instead stay back to work,” said Samik Bhattacharya, former MLA and chief spokesperson of BJP’s West Bengal unit.
“We have been pushing for the ONORC which is a game-changer and is specifically aimed at migrant workers who can take its benefits. Whether it is increasing the number of workdays or setting a minimum wage, all our promises will help migrant workers and their families also,” he said.
Even as the troubles for migrant workers seem to return with a spike in COVID-19 cases and restrictions on movement being imposed, analysts feel that political intervention is the only way forward to resolve their woes.
“In electoral politics, at least currently, I think there is no scope to cater to issues like these. However, I firmly believe that without political intervention or a strong political view, these kinds of problems can never be solved. This is the need of the hour,” Basu said.
The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports at the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.
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