Migrant Populations, Permanent Problems

With the economy now confirmed as having moved into the twenty-first century, the need for infrastructure is being felt in an emphatic manner. All over the country, it requires but a casual observation to see the various construction activities being carried out – construction per se, renovation, expansion – apparently on a war footing. In fact, according to some corners – well justified too – we are indeed on a war footing with China, which is slowly attracting (call it outsourcing) Indian back-offices to its own shores. Thus, if we are to retain our name and fame as a reliable BPO nation (instead of the BPL nation we had so far been considered) we need to put two steps forward too.
So, simply put, we need to construct. As many roads, highways, flyovers, accomodation facilities, shipment facilities, communication facilities, etc. etc. as we can. And as fast as possible.
Which then evolves into a question on its feasibility. Are we, Indians, technically and socially capable of sustained and disciplined infrastructural growth? Do we have the labour to back the technology and the science we have proved ourselves only too capable of teaching? Do we have the necessary workforce? Finally, is it organized enough?
There is no doubt anywhere that India – and Indians – have the potential for sustained infrastructural growth. What is needed, though, is the will and the imagination. One trait that has presented itself notoriously in the last fifty/sixty years has been our penchant for playing it safe and for the past rather than for the future. A case in example would be the introduction of television in India during the ’82 Asiad.
It was argued by members within the scientific community that instead of merely borrowing the black-and-white technology from the western nations, India should have forged ahead with developing its own colour television system. The suggestion was eventually turned down by the then government because there were too many people who believed that it would turn out to be a white elephant. Perhaps we could have done it, perhaps we might have failed. But the fact is that we never tried.
We never tried.
Where the Germans and the Japanese have surged ahead is in the way they have absorbed scientific planning into their work culture. While we were still shouting populist slogans, they were employing measures – harsh, perhaps, but necessary – to convert their agricultural sector from the traditional practices towards newer, innovative approaches. Two-crop method, seed-culture, better warehousing and transportation facilities sprang up there even as we tried to restrain our thoughts to the end of the harvest season. Even now, with free power a 95%-guarantee for most elections, we prove that we have not yet progressed beyond Nehru’s Five-year plans.
This lack of foresight is not merely a symptom of the agro-field. Remember when some bright fellows learnt of the underwater quake directly in line with our coast and never even thought of it as far ahead as its next logical development, a tsunami? Or the way the BMC is evicting thousands of people from its slums without providing them with any sort of a temporary shelter?
According to the Indian government’s 2001 Census, about 15% of the population in each state (roughly about 150 million people for the whole of India) belong to the migrant, non-rooted class. (While the Indian census does not quote those figures, the figures have been calculated on the basis of other reports too) In other words, we’ve got close to a fifth of the nation as a nomadic population.
Why are they nomadic?
At first glance, it seems ironic that most people who leave their homes behind in search of greener pastures eventually end up as the unseen and unwanted citizens of a large, faceless city far away. There, in wooden and mud shanties, they lead out their lives in poverty and want. Every five years, when elections are just around the corner, the sewers are cleaned, the taps flow once again, the bulb glows at night. And in the intervening period, they remain the inhabitants of La Pierre’s ‘City of Joy.’
One reason they do all this could be because, for all the populist slogans of “the real India being in its villages,” development still remains a stranger to most villages in India. Granted, states like Gujarat and Kerala, through intense involvement of their people in local governance, have seen better development at the grassroots level than, say, states like Rajasthan and Bihar. This perhaps explains the fact that most of the migrant labour you see around you are Bihari or from the North-East.
With basic infrastructure like health-care, education and electricity still underdeveloped in many villages across the country (for all of India Shining or Aam Aadmi ke Saath) it should then come as no surprise that people turn to the cities as the one place where they can have these facilities. But when even a graduate has to fight fifty other graduates for the same vacancy, what chance does an illiterate, ‘country’ fellow have? But one difference the latter has is in his priorities. Where we, the educated under- and -grads, want a five-figure salary, free accomodation and other perks, they are content with a daily wage of fifty rupees a day, one-and-a-half meals and free, if subsidised, education for their children. They spend the rest of their lives trying to free their kids from the cycle in which they are trapped.
All said and done, however, no one gives a damn about them. Neither the administration nor the government, for they are not eligible voters – to vote, they have to return to their native places – and the contractor under whom they work is often too busy trying to clear his payment from the authorities that he has little time for them. They are thus reduced to second-class citizens in their own country. It has nothing to do with caste, creed or religion, nothing to do with age or gender. It is merely that they remain anonymous to those who see and fail to observe.
The solution…
Since the main problem with regard to migrant populations is their compulsory migration as and where their work contracts take them, my proposal seeks to address this aspect. Treating the disease, not the symptom, so to speak.
The Indian Government should set up 10 Construction Corporations, four of them National and one each for each zone (North, South, East, West, Central and North-East) The stakes will be on a 55%-45% basis, with the lesser share set aside for foreign/private investment. Every contractor in India will be required to register himself with any one of these corporations, without exception, and for every state contract that comes up, only bids from these ten corpns. will be accepted.
The purpose of state-investment is two-fold. One, it enables the official machinery to exert its discipline on the corporation. Two, it cements the government in a revenue-generating structure as well as maintaining a checks-and-balance approach to contract work. Attracting foreign investment for our infrastructural development in a controlled environment should resemble a carrot-and-stick approach. Just to make sure that they don’t screw us up and get away with it.
FI will also serve another purpose, in that they will open up the technological sector in the business. With existing equipment, India simply cannot meet the pace of development that has to be set. FI will, through their R&D, encourage better and more efficient practices.
How does all this help the migrant population settle down?
Once a contractor signs up with a corporation, his labour workforce – technical and non-technical – will be absorbed into the structure of the corporation. From then onwards, each labourer – adult labourer, of course – will be paid a fixed income based on two slabs – when he/she is working on a project, and when he/she is not. Whenever a fresh contract comes up, each contractor has to present his/her bid – if so wished – to the company auditors who will determine the eligibility of the bid. At an open meeting, a week before the actual bid, every corporation will hold an internal auction to decide its bid and the contractor who will execute it.
Should a circumstance ever arise when a particular contractor feels that he is being held back or discriminated against by the management, he is free to address the issue at a special tribunal that can be held to examine such charges. Punishment for those who err should be severe, whether it is a biased or corrupt management policy, or strong-arm tactics employed by the contractor.
The labourers selected for a particular project shall be at the discretion of the contractor, for those who work together need the harmony of familiarity. If he needs more hands, he can requisition them from the corporation’s database. If he does not need as many, he can inform the corporation which will them designate them as available for future projects.
What about the payment?
The government or any other contracting authority pays the corporation, the corporation then pays the contractor, the labourers and the shareholders. The profits will be divided between the shareholders, the contractor, for R and D and towards better facilities for the labourers. After all, happy workers are efficient workers.
This is not a socialist Utopian society in which profits are anathema and the state rules with an iron fist. Au contraire, the motivation of profit is very much there – but along the lines of margin-free super-shoppes, where the real earnings are through sales turnover and not on high margins of profit per item. A massive, yet manageably compartmentalised, centrally administered and transparent system of organization where the invisible few are not shuttled as and when their employers sign new contracts.
In other words, when a contractor gets a project out-of-station, he can trade – as impersonal as it sounds – his personal staff for a local one. This will eliminate the continuous uprooting of people who have already lost all hope of ever putting down roots anywhere. Moreover, like the hand scratching itself, the Government can contract them for constructing their own colonies in cleared tracts of land without forcing them, through the apathy of beauraucracy, into slums which may be there one day, gone the next. We don’t want slums in paradise, but we shouldn’t kick them out into hell either.
It is, but a small step towards Vision 2020.
But a step in the right direction nonetheless…