Migrant workers wait in a bus on the banks of Yamuna River while being transferred to a shelter in New Delhi, on April 15.
Migrant workers wait in a bus on the banks of Yamuna River while being transferred to a shelter in New Delhi, on April 15. | Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: For the first time since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power six years ago, signs are emerging that his seemingly unshakable hold over legions of migrant workers may be slipping.

Over the last two months reports have poured in from across the country about the suffering of those who lost their incomes almost overnight when Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. Now anger is starting to surface in key states at a leader who just last year won his second term in office with a sweeping majority.

“Why did he abandon us?” Jammun Jha, a textile factory worker who lost his job in the northern town of Noida, asked of Modi. The 50-year-old had been trying to get on a bus to his village on May 29, some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) away in the eastern state of Bihar.

“The Modi government did very little for us this time,” said Jha, who voted for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party last year. “Surely, people who have suffered like me will remember what we have had go through when we vote next.”

So far, the shifting sentiments are mostly anecdotal: No credible surveys have tapped the views of the more than 100 million migrant workers living in India. Modi has enjoyed high approval ratings for his handling of the virus, he retains a solid majority in the national parliament, a weak opposition remains largely ineffective and he doesn’t need to call a general election until 2024.

But a wider shift in attitudes among voters like Jha poses a risk in state elections over the next 12 months, which could start to erode the BJP-led coalition’s strength in the upper house of parliament. The lockdown has largely failed to stem the virus in major cities like Mumbai and Delhi, and prolonged unemployment is starting to boost tensions.

The first test for Modi will come by November in Bihar, the country’s largest source of migrant labor, which is currently ruled by a coalition that includes his BJP. As one of India’s poorest and most populous states, it also has outsize significance as a political bellwether.

“It’s too early to say whether or not this will impact Prime Minister Modi’s political fortunes,” said Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said by email. “There is the potential for this to negatively impact the Bihar elections — if the opposition is able to come together again.”

Migrant workers and their families are held behind a barrier at a police checkpoint in New Delhi, on March 28. | Photo: Anindito Mukherjee | Bloomberg
Migrant workers and their families are held behind a barrier at a police checkpoint in New Delhi, on March 28. | Photo: Anindito Mukherjee | Bloomberg

Kicking off the BJP’s election campaign in Bihar on Sunday, Home Minister Amit Shah — Modi’s right-hand man — signaled the ruling party was sensitive to criticisms of its treatment of migrant workers. While predicting the government would be returned with a two-thirds majority, Shah urged them to ignore opposition leaders who criticize Modi’s response.

“You should distance yourself from these talks, especially migrant workers,” Shah said. “Remember, the whole country appreciates you.”

These laborers make up nearly one-fifth of India’s workforce, building its cities and running its factories. Their anguish has been a constant backdrop of the country’s coronavirus response since Modi announced a lockdown from March 25 with just four hours notice, leaving many stranded with no cash and no support from local authorities.

One policy misstep that may hurt the administration in places like Bihar was a plan to use special trains to ferry workers home cities to rural villages. It started only a month into the lockdown and has been mired in chaos and tragedy.

Many people had no choice but to walk or cycle hundreds of kilometers, dragging luggage and carrying children on their shoulders. One desperate group traveled inside the cavity of a cement mixer. Hundreds perished on the way of starvation and accidents, including a group of migrant workers walking along railway tracks who fell asleep and were run over by a train.

“These migrants used to speak highly of Modi, but now they are very critical of him,” said Shaibal Gupta, an economist and founder of the Asian Development Research Institute in Bihar, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in economics, politics and development. Their discontent at the “raw deal” they received from the government will have an impact on the election in Bihar, he said: “They will vote against Modi’s party and his coalition partner.”

There have already been outbreaks of social unrest. In the city of Surat in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, police subdued angry workers with tear gas in five separate clashes in April and May as citizens demanded the government arrange trains to help them return to villages.

For its part, the ruling party doesn’t see any adverse political impact.

“Most migrant labor decided to move when the lockdown was extended and some incidents were indeed tragic,” said spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain by phone. “But the government moved quickly and showed that it cared for them and was committed to their well being,” he said.

The main opposition party has, so far, failed to seize the political moment despite its harsh criticisms of the government. Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said the attitude of Modi’s administration toward the workers was clear: “‘You broke the lockdown, now go to hell.’ Nothing else can explain their brutalization.”

Unprotected by unions and politicians, migrants are often at the mercy of their employers for wages and benefits in industries such as textiles, garments and construction. They’ve struggled to access the  $277 billion support package announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, which promised cheap credit to farmers, direct transfer of money to the poor and easier access to food security programs.

Kishen Kumar Sharma, 28, who’s paralyzed from the waist down following an accident, was being treated in a Delhi hospital until the virus outbreak put the country’s medical system on red alert. His treatment stopped, both his brothers lost their jobs and they were thrown out of their rented room and had to live on the roads for a week.

“Even animals are treated better,” Sharma said as he pushed his wheelchair along the highway trying to cover the 800 kilometers to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh while his family members walked with him.

“Modi has been talking a lot, but his government did nothing for us during this crisis,” he said. “I voted for the BJP, but next time I won’t.”- Bloomberg


Also read: Demand for Shramik Specials likely to stop after 16 June, reverse migrant trains could follow


 

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Migrants asking why did He abandon them ? First of all, when did He embrace the migrants ? All the time he gave them jumlas. Now when real time came to support the migrants, He pushed everything on other States and he rescued himself. This is the work of a traitor. When u blindly believe a person like Him, this is the result. His friends r corporates who finance the party and no one else. Jai Hind !

  2. I am an ardent follower of Modiji. But I dont approve BJP’s policy of arranging for special flights to bring back stranded NRIs from abroad but not bothering about millions of helpless migrants who were disowned by their host states and left to fend for themselves by the Centre. Our Centre should remember that NRIs go abroad to work only for the reason that they get hefty pay (thanks to conversion advantage) but the migrants are those poor who dont find a job in their own state and hence migrate to other states to slog extra for a meagre pay – except learned IT employees. Our Govt goes out of the way to help even Pakistanis to take medical treatment in our country. Our Centre even fixed ceiling for Airfare to help not so poor flyers but did not take quick action to help the poor migrants. This will only prove Congress right that BJP is a Suit Boot Party.

    • Mr Nagesh: I find it odd that despite the demonstrated and consistent callousness and disregard shown by PM Modi towards the poor of the nation, the weak, the marginalised minorities and others who have not exactly seen anything substantial from empty “sabka saath, sabka vikas” type slogans, you still remain “an ardent follower of Modiji”. Politicians and political parties have to be held accountable for their deeds and their performance, not be worshipped like pop stars or film heroes. It is precisely this failure to do so and the gullibility of the middle classes who succumb to the Göbbelsian propaganda of the Hindutva brigade that makes the Modi government more authoritarian as the days go by. And deliver less and less whilst weakening the already fragile unity of the country.

      Starting from the hare-brained scheme called demonetisation and followed up by an unwieldy, impossible to implement GST, the through sheer incompetence, BJP government has waged war on the poor. Of course an entirely different matter is the fact that the poor and the less educated easily fall for the BJP’s appeal to the Hindu identity, Ram Mandir, Ganga purification, Muslim bashing and other fascist ideas. Of course, the poor cannot be blamed for being hoodwinked – after all, even educated men like you Mr Nagesh are enamoured by this fascism and Hindutva right? But now you shed crocodile tears for the poor migrants stranded thousands of miles away from their homes and facing slow death by starvation.

      You go on to make yet another preposterous claim:

      “.. Centre should remember that NRIs go abroad to work only for the reason that they get hefty pay ..”

      Fact is Mr Nagesh, the drivers of almost all migration both for white collar as well as blue collar workers are roughly the same: the pursuit of “achche din” outside India largely because jobs are hard to come by in India. That was the case even before your beloved Modi came to power, but it has become even more acute in the wake of the failed economic policies of the man with jobless growth being a hallmark of these policies. Better salaries are surely a driver and a push factor but most blue collar workers earn little. Indeed, the vast majority of blue collar workers in the Middle-East send their hard-earned money back to India as remittances and do not save in the countries where they work. Most of them have been let go from their jobs, lack housing and even food. So why shouldn’t the GOI not bring them back? After all, their remittances shore up a doddering economy don’t they Mr Nagesh?

      Poor Indian workers wherever they happen to be stranded – be it in wealthier Southern states or in the Middle-East deserve to be repatriated at GOI expense. We are not talking of white collar workers who have the wherewithal to survive where they are or get back to India under their own steam.

      Finally, the intent of your comment seems to be, not the welfare of poor workers but the need to protect the image of your beloved Modiji and the BJP and thwart the potential Congress allegation of “suit boot sarkar”. Well, the VP Singh government in 1990 evacuated all Indian workers who were stranded in the Middle-East due to the Gulf War. The government pledged its gold bullion, commandeered Air India aircraft and over a period of 60 days, all Indian workers were evacuated. That was not a “suit boot sarkar”.

      Perhaps you can ask Modiji if he would be willing to lend the 2 extremely expensive, customised Boeing 757 aircraft he as ordered for his personal flying and use them to evacuate stranded Indians – be they migrants in South India or in the Middle-East.

  3. Really, why did state govt. where these workers stayed, abandoned them? These workers contributed significantly to economy of these states and in the time of crisis, the have been thrown away by these state governments! CMs of these states must resign on this account. THESE WORKERS SHOULD NOT BE CALLED MIGRANTS IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY. IT IS THEIR FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO WORK ANYWHERE IN THE COUNTRY.

    • Mr Mohan: Kerala and Tamilnadu take care of their migrant workers. Karnataka, a BJP ruled state prevented the running of trains to take migrants away as the construction industry was afraid that they would not have access to labour when the economy re-opened. I do not know about AP.

      Indians have a fundamental right to move and work anywhere in the country – on paper. But haveyou heard of Bal Thackeray and his attacks on “kaala madrasis”, Biharis (ek bihaari, sau bimari was the Shiv Sena slogan) , North Indians and so forth? Can Bengalis easily move to Assam? Can KAshmoris move to Adityanathisthan and feel safe?

      India is a federation in name only – most states are wary of letting in outsiders. Sad, but true.

  4. Modi and his govr not only abandoned you but insulted and feprived you of what he collected in PM cares,,, its seen now,,, two nee aircraft coming for his security,, now show your strength and boot him out eith disgrace in the coming elections

  5. Mr Sundar Ramanathan: I find it unbelievable and indeed disgusting that an educated man like you would be incapable of sympathising with the millions of poor people who now face slow death by starvation. Thanks in no small measure to the callous policies and rank incompetence of the 56 inch chested Delhi University graduate at the helm of affairs. Of course, the PM has been aided and abetted by an equally uncompassionate and uncaring urban middle class that sees it fit to use and dump the many poor migrant servants that keep their lives running smoothly.

    PM Modi’s decision to implement the sudden lockdown is reminiscent of the equally cruel abrupt withdrawal of currencies during his harebrained demonetisation scheme in 2016. Then as now, it is not the well-heeled with online bank accounts that suffered but the poor. But this time, in addition to depriving them of cash, they were also deprived of a roof over their heads and condemned to slow starvation and death on the roads of India. With a touch of police brutality thrown in.

    The plight of migrant workers is nothing but a re-enactment of the Partition of 1947-48. This time though, it was not brutal religious strife and intolerance that made Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to flee but class and economic power. The poor, lacking the economic wherewithal to earn a fair day’s wage were evicted by landlords and ejected by their employers and forced to flee. With an indifferent government and a violent police force driving home the fact they were worthless use-and-throw parts and not human beings.

    The Modi government largely answers to its base – the upper caste, urban and Hindu middle classes, especially in the Hindi belt. Whilst also ensuring that its policies are not inimical to the interests of its crony capitalist backers. Of course there are the South Indian fellow travellers and armchair gaurakshaks like you Mr Sundar Ramanathan who would bend backwards to defend an insensitive government rather than support the weak. And would rather function as a propaganda minister in true Göbbelsian fashion for a callous politician and talk down to poor migrants.

    Sadly, propaganda works. The poor were convinced by the PM that demonetisation was in their interests and that they had suffered for the greater good of the nation. Never mind the fact that the rich had succeeded in laundering their illicit wealth with little difficulties. They voted the 56 inch chested Delhi university graduate back to power. I hope they realise this time what they have undergone thanks to the incompetence and indifference of the PM. Who incidentally has ordered 2 state of the art Boeing 757 aircraft to ferry him around.

    I hope the poor get the message this time around. Although I am no optimist.

  6. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, which promised cheap credit to farmers, direct transfer of money to the poor and easier access to food security programs.
    Well this is what you mentioned but you must be ‘Congress Party chamcha spreading lies?
    The center has done everything that was required but state government in Congress controlled state just siphoned all the money which you dare not to print?

  7. God also left them to be alone. Blaming everything on Modi has become a habit for the The Print. Will Modi run your house also now? Maid has not come – then call Modi.
    Sometimes you have to have your own brains and view on how you would live your life. Most of the migrants went back on free tickets……will come back. Trouble is a part of life….we all have our own share of troubles. Just because someone faced it more does not reduce troubles.

    Ask China questions on the virus……that no media house has courage other than WION.

    • Mr Jasal Shah: The government in power at any given time is accountable for the consequences of its decisions. PM Modi’s lockdown decision, like his ill-thought demonetisation decision was a deadly blow to the solar plexus of the poor.

      But much worse than the callous decisions of the 56 inch chested Gujarathi are the applause he gets from middle-class Hindutvaists like you who believe that he is the much awaited Messiah that will magically transform India into a Singapore or Switzerland. And refuse to put themselves into the shoes of the millions of poor migrants, the farmers and rural poor rendered penurious by the ham-handed actions of the maestro of the Gujarat Model, whatever the hell that is.

      Fact is Mr Jasal Shah, most migrants walked back home, often on empty stomachs. No trains ran to take them home. And the few Shramik trains that ran were expensive and bookings had to be done on smartphones. Not many could do that – contrary to what your mentors Arnab Goswami, Adityanath and Babu Bajrangi might have told you. People died walking home as they did not have a roof over their heads in the cities they worked in. They could not afford the rents as they had lost their jobs and incomes.

      When you thoughtlessly say: “.. we all have our own share of troubles. Just because someone faced it more does not reduce trouble ..” well, aren’t you making an “apples to oranges” comparison Sir ? After all, you didn’t have to trudge for hundreds of miles along highways with your wife and kids from Bangalore, Bombay or Madras to the villages of Bihar & UP did you ? But then, for people like you who live in comfortable middle-class homes and sat out the lockdown watching Netflix movies, the poor migrants are “out of sight, out of mind”.

      As novelist Herman Melville (1819-1891) said:

      “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed”.

      I guess that quote applies to you and your well-fed ilk Mr Jasal Shah.

    • Mr Jasal Shah: The government in power at any given time is accountable for the consequences of its decisions. PM Modi’s lockdown decision, like his ill-thought demonetisation decision was a deadly blow to the solar plexus of the poor.

      But much worse than the callous decisions of the 56 inch chested Gujarathi are the applause he gets from middle-class Hindutvaists like you who believe that he is the much awaited Messiah that will magically transform India into a Singapore or Switzerland. And refuse to put themselves into the shoes of the millions of poor migrants, the farmers and rural poor rendered penurious by the ham-handed actions of the maestro of the Gujarat Model, whatever the hell that is.

      Fact is Mr Jasal Shah, most migrants walked back home, often on empty stomachs. No trains ran to take them home. And the few Shramik trains that ran were expensive and bookings had to be done on smartphones. Not many could do that – contrary to what your mentors Arnab Goswami, Adityanath and Babu Bajrangi might have told you. People died walking home as they did not have a roof over their heads in the cities they worked in. They could not afford the rents as they had lost their jobs and incomes.

      When you thoughtlessly say: “.. we all have our own share of troubles. Just because someone faced it more does not reduce trouble ..” well, aren’t you making an “apples to oranges” comparison Sir ? After all, you didn’t have to trudge for hundreds of miles along highways with your wife and kids from Bangalore, Bombay or Madras to the villages of Bihar & UP did you ? But then, for people like you who live in comfortable middle-class homes and sat out the lockdown watching Netflix movies, the poor migrants are “out of sight, out of mind”.

      As novelist and poet Herman Melville (1819-1891) said:

      “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed”.

      I guess that quote applies to you and your well-fed ilk Mr Jasal Shah.

  8. aa gaya do chamcha tmc wala..dekh lena bihar election kaun jitega…aur bangla bhi…

  9. Its the state government who did nothing for the migrants .Modiji gave them trains and is trying make them self sufficient by giving them jobs unlike others who want them to
    be beggar by transferring money in their bank .

  10. Is this a paid news articles by opposition? When migrants are returning back and you are still cribbing on migrants….yes do agree, Rahul Gandhi and opposition have no work but to disrupt the work being done…..

  11. ***Congress = We have just one family that loots.
    ***BJP = We are one large family of looters.
    ***O Gullible People of India, judge for yourself which kind of looter you would prefer, or perhaps you could do very well without a ‘Government’. Gone are those days when a POLITICIAN could be trusted. Perhaps in future it would be better to live without the presence of a Government !

  12. The last 50 years or so our population explosion has not been deterrd by unlimited calls from politicians from all over…. “Hum do hamare do” never really matters to Indians. And now we are blaming the central govt. Pathetic we Indians!!

    • Hum do aur hamara yek would be good for the country provided infiltration from neighbouring countries is checked. Otherwise it will be like burning both sides of a candle.

  13. Aandh bakhts don’t understand that they r being used to further someone’s political agenda. More sufferings r in store for these migrants.

  14. brotherrs and sisters. Modiji has not done anything but to assist you. so is our health dept and railways. Problem is we are too large a number in population and hence you feel neglected. Try to stay back one or 2 months if you get jobs and earn some money and go home.You will feel good. I know it is very difficult time. Thank you,.

      • Excellent, hard-hitting retort Mr Swamay:

        Please see my reply to Mr Sundar Ramanathan which appears above Mr Ramanathan’s comment.

Comments are closed.