Wikipedia on slavery: … any situation in which an individual is de facto forced to work against their own will.
Situation: Traveled for work to a faraway land, calamity struck the land and took away employment, turned out of the place they called home, no wage, no food, starving, dependent on stranger’s kindness to get even one meal a day, no way to return home where no feast is waiting but at least beloved faces to look at, meager produce of the land to share… After five weeks of agony, a ray of hope – a way to go back home – not walking hundreds of kilometers, as some desperate people have tried to do, usually only to be turned back, but by trains. Scramble for money, some dig into last reserves, some depend on the generosity of the strangers. But hopes were dashed, trains cancelled, because the masters who refused to pay salaries (often keeping back already earned wages), now want the workers to work. Task masters prevent departure of workers.
Construction workers are among the most vulnerable in our work force: far from family and any social support, unskilled and often illiterate, poorly paid, moving around often and unable to anchor, usually not registered and therefore ripe for exploitation. The construction sector contributes around 9% of India’s GDP and employs the highest number of migrant workers. Each year, nine million workers move from rural areas to cities in search of work at construction sites and in factories. It comes as surprise to no one who knows India that there is an intersection of class and caste here: people from the Other Backward Classes (40%), Scheduled Castes (23 %) and Scheduled Tribes (20%) make up the bulk of this community across the country.
A vast majority of these workers are not registered and therefore were ineligible for government relief when the COVID-19 lock-down was announced. These migrants, who, by nature of their work, have to move often, usually live in temporary accommodations at their place of work. Many employers turned them out when the constructions stopped. As a result, many became destitute almost overnight. Quite understandably, many of them headed home – hundreds of kilometers away, on foot. Only to be stopped at borders by the order of the central government. Those who were forced to turn back or to stay because there was no transport, took the first opportunity to try to get seats on trains specially allowed to run exactly for this purpose after five weeks of lock-down. Confusion reigned about the price of the tickets and who would pay the price (see out special report), but at least there was a glimmer of hope. Now that hope has been snatched away in Karnataka. Reportedly, the builder’s lobby has convinced the state government to stop the special trains. As if to rub salt in the wound, on one hand the government plans to airlift thousands of richer migrants from around the globe – on the other, apparently some migrants deserve more than others. In his typical inimitable insensible style, the media-darling MP from Bangalore, Tejaswi Surya twitted:
This very interesting tweet raises a heap of questions: if the stoppage of trains is such a necessary move why is Karnataka the only state to do so and why did they do it only after meeting the representatives of Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI)? Where was he when the migrant labourers who “came here with hopes of a better life” were starving? Where was the state apparatus when food needed distribution? Why, the dreaming workers want to go back at all if their dreams are about to come true? If this is so true and obvious, why cannot Surya, a lawyer and surely a good speaker, unable to convince his constituents to stay, without coercion? Why are migrants leaving if help is at hand? Why is Surya unable to convince them to stay?
The answer is revealed by Surya himself – the move is bold because it will kickstart the economy – it has nothing to do with worker’s dreams and better life. It has everything to do with the economy that depends on the near-slave labour-force to thrive. Flowery words about migrants’ dreams is a blatant LIE. A shameful sham. Surya does not care a jot about migrants. All he cares about is builders being able to continue their hugely profitable rackets. Today is not the time to expose the illegalities indulged in by the average Karnataka builder – from shady land-deals to shoddy materials, illegal sand-mining to violating labor laws. But by standing with the rich and powerful corrupt lobby, Surya has exposed himself for what he is – a privileged upper-caste man incapable of basic human sympathy and decency.
“I, Lakya Suryanarayana Tejasvi, having been elected a member of the House of the People do swear in the name of God that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established …”
Like all members of parliament, Surya too must have taken such an oath declaring his allegiance to the constitution of India. The same constitution in which the article 23 clearly forbids forced labor. Preventing people from leaving, forcing them to stay-put, and thus compelling them work – for a specific master – is clearly forced labour. Even if he failed to read the constitution to which he so recently declared allegiance, he should have read article 23 as a law student. Or was he not paying attention because he was distracted by (groundless) worries about lack of sexual satisfaction among women in faraway places?
Not everyone is so ignorant of the law however, and there are still lawyers who paid attention in class, and who do not support rank exploitation. “Illegal. Ill-advised. Disgraceful. Alarming. Inhuman. Unconstitutional.” is how some legal experts have described the train cancellations. Workers unions have already started filing for legal redress. We can hope that this shameful chapter in the history of Karnataka will be speedily rectified. Meanwhile the young MP will do well to rectify his insensitive discourse and brush up his law lessons lest even RSS decides that he is too much of an embarrassment to remain a Sevak.