'Khaali haath, khaali jeb, khaali pet': Ahead of Bihar polls, Nitish Kumar govt faces ire of intra-state migrants
The 32 lakh returning migrants joined the existing pool of intra-state migrants, who were already struggling to find jobs, only deepening the unemployment crisis.
Editor’s Note: By June 2020, at least 32 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar, driven home by the pandemic. The state’s resources, already stressed to capacity, has barely managed to resettle these workers. Their daily economic hardship is now the primary issue in the run-up to Bihar’s Assembly election, scheduled to take place between 28 October and 7 November. Firstpost travelled through the state to understand those issues faced by migrant workers that will play a critical role in voting patterns. This is the third report in a multi-part series.
Patna: A group of labourers waiting at Patna’s Postal Park Chauraha literally jump up and run towards the two people approaching them, including this reporter. “Karenge sir, bataiye (we will do it, just tell us),” the men say in unison without even asking what the job is.
These are the intra-state migrant labourers of Bihar who have been left in the lurch, especially during an exacting lockdown which was imposed with less than 24 hours notice. They have not found any employment since March.
Squatting and hunched over on a footpath, the group of 12-15 men are despondent. “There is absolutely no work. We come here every day at 5 am, wait till noon and then some keep waiting, some sleep here on the footpath till the next day, and some of us just go back -- khaali haath, khaali jeb, aur khaali pet (empty-handed, empty pocket and empty stomach),” says Sudhir Prasad, who religiously returns to the Postal Park labour adda every morning from Masaurhi, a small town 33 kilometres from Patna.
The anger against the incumbent government in Bihar among intra-state migrant labourers is palpable when one visits these hubs, informally known as “labour chowks”. “We had to depend on local contractors for work even before the lockdown. Now, the number of unemployed labourers have exploded and there is not enough work,” says Ashok Singh who has come from Hajipur. “It is 7 am. Usually by this time we are already on to our work sites. But even if you come by 12 pm, you will see as many labourers just waiting around,” he adds.
Over 35 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar after the Centre imposed the COVID lockdown in March this year. The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crore, or 37 percent of India’s population. More than 67 lakh migrants returned to 116 districts in six states from urban centres during the lockdown. Bihar topped the six states with 23.6 lakh returning to 32 districts.
While the returning migrants were covered by most media houses, intra-state migrant workers — which constitute mainly agricultural and daily wage labourers — were ignored. The 32 lakh returning migrants joined the existing pool of intra-state migrants, who were already struggling to find jobs in the prominent cities of Bihar -- Patna, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Vaishali, Purnia, to name a few.
Not only were the existing workers not getting any work, they now had to compete with returning migrants who thronged the towns of Bihar in search of work. The added competition further affected the workers’ bargaining power with contractors as far as payment was concerned.
A day’s labour fetches a worker not more than Rs 400. Commuting to and from the city costs them at least Rs 150 a day. In the absence of any work, and more labourers on the roads looking for jobs — especially during the lockdown — a majority of them said they are incurring more debt with increased spending and no earning. “Humko kisi ko nahi dena vote. Bhukhmari hai yahan. Ek baat kehte hain, kuch aur karte hain. Hum kya vishwas karke vote de? (We are not going to vote for anyone. There is a famine here. They say something, do something else. How do we trust anyone to vote for?)," says Vinod Prasad from Masaurhi.
”Will we eat off these good roads?”
At another labour adda — Dinkar Chowk in Patna — labourers literally pounce on a motorcyclist as he comes to a halt. The man has pre-paid for labour, picks up his guy and leaves.
“Dekh lijiye, ye haal hai (look at our condition),” said Sudarshan Prasad who hails from Navalpur. Apart from the strong anti-incumbency waves against JD(U)-led NDA, the absence of food on their plates has made the voters livid, the workers from four labour chowks in Patna said. They are no longer buying into Nitish’s “good governance” and “development” plank. “Will we eat off these good roads? Or will we sell the bijli (electricity) and run our homes?” asks Sudarshan. When asked who he thinks should be the next chief minister, he quietly moves away. Sudarshan had voted for the Nitish-led RJD-JD(U) alliance in 2014.
Daily wage labourers from in and around Patna start gathering at labour chowks in the wee hours every day, where there is the highest possibility of getting work. “We have started coming early, but it does not matter,” says Manish Kumar who has cycled from Masaurhi. Left in the lurch after a lockdown which was announced to control the spread of the novel coronavirus , the labourers said they covered hundreds of kilometres by foot or by bicycle in the absence of any public transport.
“They stopped trains and buses soon after they announced the lockdown. But they couldn’t arrange for food on our plates,” says one of the many labourers gathered at Bhattacharya Chowk in Patna.
“Which candidate has done what? Since March, when workers started walking back home, have you seen a single mantri (minister) on the road?” says one of the labourers, who wished to remain anonymous.
“Every household in Bihar has at least one migrant worker in their family. The labouring community, especially the youth of Bihar, is clearly disenchanted and furious with the current government. And the voters are evasive on who they will favour in the Assembly elections,” says Professor Pushpendra Kumar Singh of Tata Institute of Social Services.
Pushpendra has been part of a survey in Bihar conducted on the issue of migrant workers, where they found that the anger among voters against the incumbent government is noticeable. “Voters have not forgotten that the political leadership in Bihar left the workers in the lurch. Nitish and the Opposition have been conspicuously missing from the scene when the crisis unfolded. The lockdown was for the people on the road, not for the government. I think voters will express that anger in this election,” says Singh.
At three labour chows of Patna, however, the labourers chanted in support of Lalu and ‘laltain’. “Aaj agar Lalu hote toh ye din nahi dekhna padta,” says Binod Prasad, who travels every day to Patna from Barh. “Modi ne notebandhi kiya aur Nitish ne uska saath diya. Rasta aur bijli kitne din bechenge? Hum laltain ko denge vote,” he adds.
The workers said that it is not just that they are unemployed and starving. The behaviour of the administration and the police following the abruptly imposed lockdown was despicable. Kalinder Kumar, a daily wage labourer who had come all the way from Jehanabad, said, “We came here for work and we got lathis from Nitish. We will tell you how we feel on 28 October.”
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