For Raj Thackeray, the anti-migrants sentiment that he constantly whips up is a non-depreciating political asset that two generations of his family has survived on. The more he speaks against Biharis, his symbol for migrants and many other things communal and political, the more intense becomes his sectarian passion.
But in his rabid political rhetoric, which often sounds venomous and xenophobic, what is lost is a valid point that he articulates well: the problem of unbridled internal migration from certain parts of the country that is emerging as a big challenge to many Indian cities.
When he says that 48 trains from the north Indian states arrive in Mumbai every day, that there is no record of the people who are coming in, that the unknown antecedents of many of them pose security risks to Mumbai and that the city’s infrastructure is unable to cope with the influx, he actually points to a valid issue that needs urgent attention.
But unfortunately the way he polemicises it, including the contempt he has for migrants, make the issue politically inflammable.
And he is not the only politician who has spoken about the issue: Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, calls it a major challenge that her government is facing while for the then home minister P Chidambaram, who spoke before her, it is also a reason for the rising crime rates in Delhi.
In fact what Sheila Dikshit said about migration and what Raj Thackeray keeps shouting from his public platforms are not qualitatively different: this one sided movement of people to cities cannot go on for ever and the states from where the migrants originate should do something about it.
“All the states will have to think why their people are migrating from their states. If the states provide them opportunities and livelihood, build better cities, then I do not think the migration will continue,” said Sheila Dikshit at a CII meeting in Delhi early August. Raj Thackeray’s message to Bihar, his political bugbear, is similar although he says it differently: take care of your people and don’t just unleash them on us.
The motive and tone of Raj might be objectionable given that any Indian can live and work in any other part of the country without fear. But this constitutional guarantee doesn’t nullify the ills of excessive migration which in fact affect migrants the most.
Migration, both internal and external, is an international phenomenon and one of the most discussed development challenges of recent times. For millions of migrant labourers it is the only mechanism to cope with economic distresses and to fight poverty.
In their alien lands of destination; as Biharis, Odiyas or Bengalis in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai; they are socially and politically marginalised and are targets of exploitation and risks ranging from cheating and physical attacks to health hazards.
Various studies show that migrants usually fill up hazardous and poorly-paying jobs that local population is unwilling to do. For instance, masonry in western and southern states are now almost entirely handled by migrant labourers. Despite two critical pieces of legislation that demand their safety and welfare, nothing works for them. Neither are they aware.
Another big issue is that a whole generation of children grow up without education that deprives them the most essential tool of human security. The children of migrant labourers, if travelling with family, usually don’t have access to education because of reasons such as mobility, social alienation, affordability and language.
In China, the only other country which has as big an international migration problem as India has, thousands of children face this situation and the governments and international organisations have now put in steps to handle it.
The victims of migration are migrants themselves. Academic literature on migration talks of “informed choices” — that migrants should be moving on their own volition after assessing the choices that are available to them. Informed choices doesn’t mean what they choose to do at their respective destinations, but the choice to migrate or not itself.
Most of the migrants who take up professional jobs away from their places of domicile, say for example an engineer, is based on informed choices. He/she knows what is in store; but for the itinerant migrant it is a flight out of desperation.
This is one of the reasons why there is a huge surge in the outflow of migrant labourers from Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. There is nothing to hold them back. And as reports indicate, wherever they end up, they are subjects of exploitation and other risks. Raj Thackeray finds them a huge burden and security risk while Kerala feels that they are a source of communicable diseases and wants to screen them before letting them in.
The governments of the states from where they originate should ponder over what Raj Thackeray and Sheila Dikshit say for the benefit of their own people. Instead of getting angry at Raj Thackeray and swear by his people’s constitutional right, Nitish Kumar should seriously start thinking of strategies to address the distresses that force people to move out to unknown and exploitative conditions.
Even by classical literature on migration, they should at least provide them with avenues for informed choices. Even if it doesn’t curb migration, it can certainly make it safer as examples from various countries that benefitted from external migration show.
Two countries that benefitted immensely from migration in Asia are Philippines and Sri Lanka. In both the countries, over the years, the governments have set up establishments that provide potential migrants with information for making informed decisions and pre-departure training. They also undertake steps to ensure that their migrants are not exploited.
Although this pertains to overseas migration, the states from where majority of the migrants originate have a similar responsibility. The states from where they migrate are among the poorest and worst-governed. Three decades of CPM rule has made West Bengal the biggest source of dispensable, cheap and unskilled labour for the whole country; years of governance deficits in Orissa and Bihar also have left the people with no other option but to run on their states.
Today Raj Thackeray is asking for permits for providing entry to migrants. China does it to curb its problem of “floating population”. If political pressure ultimately leads to such a situation, the corrupt and inefficient governance machinery will not curb the problem, but will add another level of exploitation on the migrants.
Research in migration clearly states that it should be addressed at three critical points: source, transit and destination. Unfortunately, the only intervention that we see is at destination which is the hate-speeches by people such as Raj or expressions of annoyance by people such as Sheila Dikshit.
Internationally, good working examples show a lot of hard work at the sources. It involves better livelihood opportunities that will dissuade people from moving out of distress, value addition to the skills of people so that they are seen as valuable assets in their destination areas, and information that will guard them from various risks.
If not Raj Thackeray’s rabid words, the circumstances that led to the exodus of north eastern citizens from southern and western Indian states should serve as the wake up call for the chief ministers and politicians of the states from where most of India’s migrant labourers originate.