Migrants – strangers in their own land, sadly
Sakuntala Narasimhan, Bengaluru
March 17, 2017

We are one nation, politically, but internal migrants are strangers in an alien environment. The world thinks of Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants when the media focuses on the plight of displaced persons, or Kashmiri pundits, or Narmada Dam oustees. The less visible ones are those like Pratik, Chinni and Krishna, who are also forcibly displaced by a model of development that prioritises mega-projects rather than the wellbeing of people, especially the rural millions who are bypassed by progress

Guru spreads the up-holstery cloth flat on the floor and deftly cuts it to the required size for the cushions on the divan, but his gaze keeps wandering to the bright red fancy sofa set behind him. Finally, he asks the lady of the house who has engaged him, “This sofa – you bought it online?” Yes, she nods. After a pause he offers, diffidently, “Must have cost less than what my carpenter uncle quoted for you last month?” Yes, she nods again.

After a pause, Guru adds softly, almost to himself, “I know. You look at the nice pictures they put on the computer – but it is not always pucca (solid) work, the fabric will fade soon, the wood will peel…” The woman is aghast – her friend who had ordered sofas online three months ago had grumbled, just this morning, that the woodwork was already peeling.

“Kaarigars (artisans) are starving, maaji,” Guru says. “The big companies, with advertisements, undercut us, they pay their workers less than fair wages, and attract buyers. There is no future for people like us who take pride in doing a pucca job.”

Cane workers seen here, some of Bengaluru’s migrants.

Guru migrated from Chauri Chaura (near Gorakhpur – made famous by Gandhiji) in Uttar Pradesh to Bengaluru, to find work since his family’s small farm could no longer sustain the family. An uncle who had moved down earlier, had suggested he try the booming “IT city”. Through occasional piece work he makes enough to feed himself, pay a rent of Rs 2500 for a small shared room and send the odd hundred rupees home to his wife and three children; he tries to visit them once in two or three years (“but it is expensive, maaji,” he says, “Kya karen (what to do).”

Guru is one of tens of thousands of “internally displaced migrants” from the rural areas, who have left their ancestral land and families in search of work in the cities, because “there is nothing left in the villages”. The city spells “money, modern comforts and the good life” – but they realise, too late, that they pay a heavy price for cash earnings that do not compensate for other dimensions of life that are equally important.

Family life, for one. Guru’s youngest child barely knows him. He misses his Bhojpuri interactions, the social inter-course, the succulent vegetables radish and jowar (sorghum, a hardsy crop) fresh from the ground, the clean air, the cool water quaffed from a stream, the spicy dals his wife cooked. He eats out now, with an eye on the cost, and can’t afford his favourite North Indian dishes. His grandmother is 100 years old; he hopes to see her when he goes “home” in April.

Many such migrants from the interior work as security guards in Indian cities. The pay is low – part of their earnings goes to the agencies that they come through (which is their only option when they don’t speak the local language), leaving just enough to keep body and soul together. Krishna came from Assam to Bengaluru in search of a living as his farm too was unable to feed the family. His mother is now ill with cancer, the land got sold to meet expenses, and he has to also repay the hefty loan he had to take for her treatment.

An Odisha terracota worker, another migrant.

“Going to see my mother, wife and sons becomes expensive,” Krishna says, “and if we go, the agency may not take us on again when we return after a month or two.” He is learning the local language, Kannada, but everything – the spoken word, the food, the customs – feels alien. “Sure, I miss my family but what can I do? The school I went to didn’t empower me to get decent work, we couldn’t afford college education, I have to be glad if I earn enough to stave off hunger,” he says, flashing a wide smile, in spite of the grimness of his comment.

Pratik, 23, also working as a security guard, is from Bihar and still finding his feet in the big metropolis. Even finding his way to work, taking two buses from his shared room causes problems as he doesn’t speak Kannada or English – most migrants are school dropouts. Last month his mobile phone was stolen, so he cannot even be contacted by his agency to work out his weekly posting schedule.

Along the pavements at busy intersections of Benguluru, rustic Rajasthani women in their traditional red lehengas (a form of skirt which is long, embroidered and pleated) sit stringing colourful ceramic beads into bracelets and mobiles. Many of them have infants in arms. Why did you come here? I ask them. “Pet ke liye (to feed our stomachs),” they say blandly. The bracelets are very pretty – and fashionable (a visiting American bought 20, to give as gifts to friends back home – “Imagine, less than 50 cents each, and so beautiful too!” he gushed.) The women don’t speak Kannada and curl up at night in a corner. The same bracelets sell for four times the price, in handicraft emporia.

One group of migrants weaves cane baskets and lampshades by the roadside. These are con-sidered ‘fashionable’ accessories, in five-star interiors but the migrants who create them, have no shelter, no security, nothing. They move from place to place looking for sales, and have no roots, no permanent economic or social security. Then there are those like Chinni who have migrated within the state, from north Karnataka to Bengaluru, to become construction labourers because “there is nothing left in their villages”. I see her eating her midday meal (from a battered aluminium saucer – rice with watery sambar) sitting on a mound of gravel under the fancy flyover that she is helping to build near Lalbagh.

Chinni’s toddler child, hair covered with dust and cement from the construction work, amuses itself by pouring sand from one hand to the other and giving passersby a broad smile while the mother takes a few minutes off before hauling a head-load of bricks up the scaffolding. I see the woman give her child water to drink from the same drum that is used to pour water into the concrete mixer. By law the contractor is required to provide crèche facilities, but she knows “nothing about it”.

The poor and uneducated are doubly disadvantaged; illiteracy is not just inability to read, it is also lack of awareness of their entitlements. At last count, there were 287 million ‘illiterates’ in the country, seven decades after Independence – the largest in the world. Right to education? Sure. On paper. The Chinnis of our nation haven’t heard about it.

The flyover costs a few hundred crores. What she earns doesn’t even give her two proper meals a day. Others like her help build high-rise apartment blocks where each flat sells for several lakhs of rupees. She and her family live under a plastic sheet held up with bamboo poles, in a corner of the site. There are no accident benefits; the workers cannot take a day off even to go to a clinic if a child is sick.

A city that caters to the state-of-the-art luxuries of the privileged (signal-free rides to the airport, Wi-fi in air-conditioned buses) ignores the basic needs of the thousands of migrants who are as much residents of the metropolis as the well-to-do. They build our flyovers and guard the premises of the rich but have no ration cards because they don’t have “address proofs”, their children get no schooling, and when illness strikes them after exposure to roadside dust and fumes and inclement weather, they have no medical insurance, or even money to access treatments. In the meantime, the state administration woos NRIs with an annual jamboree, the walls along the route from the airport to the convention centre get a fresh coat of paint. And the country celebrates Republic Day with a parade and politicians’ speeches hailing our progress as a democracy.

January 2017