Migrant workers walk along a road in Hyderabad in southern India’s Telangana state on May 4 on a long journey by foot to reach their home states during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP)
Clad in rags, she carries a baby in her arms and a bundle on her head wrapped in an old cloth. A man walks ahead carrying an iron box and another child holding on to his left hand. Ahead of them walk similar groups.
This is a common sight on the roads of Ahmedabad city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, famous as the land of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation, who had told the Indian political leadership that whenever they made a policy of governance they should keep the last and least of Indians in their mind.
That sage advice was not heeded over the years by policymakers. That has been proved during the coronavirus lockdown that started on March 25. The plight of India’s hapless migrant laborers came into sharp focus when 16 were crushed by a speeding goods train near Aurangabad in Maharashtra state around 5am on May 8.
These people had walked more than 200 kilometers after losing their jobs because of the lockdown. Broken in mind and body, they were fast asleep out of exhaustion on the railway track after assuming no trains were running due to the lockdown. Later, 24 migrant workers were killed in Uttar Pradesh when the trucks carrying them collided.
Migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometers to their villages has become a commonplace story in the media today. But in all these harrowing stories one forgets to ask a pertinent question: Why did these people become migrant laborers?
They are people who moved far away to earn their bread because they lost their means of earning a living from the land. Out of India’s 140 million estimated migrant laborers, most are tribals and Dalits, the most marginalized section of society for a host of reasons.
The tribals or adivasis, who number more than 100 million, were landholders traditionally but lost their land when state governments introduced unfair land laws. The people who cultivated the forests and made sufficient food grains lost the very land they were cultivating.
Laws are apparently made with a stated objective of development, such as the land bank policy introduced by the Jharkhand government in 2006 to acquire land for industrial development and common public good. But the people who lost land were mostly tribals.
Jharkhand has a long history of adivasi land being appropriated by non-tribal land sharks. That is what prompted Jesuit missionaries Constant Lievens and John B. Hoffman to fight for the land rights of the adivasis who inhabited the vast mountainous region of Chotanagpur now divided into two states: Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Father Lievens, who arrived in Chotanagpur in 1885, fought for the land rights of adivasis by taking their cases to court and explaining to the magistrate how the tribal deserved his land against the zamindar (landlord) who usurped it. His many successes in legal battles attracted thousands of adivasis to the Catholic faith.
But it was Father Hoffman who succeeded in persuading the British to introduce the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 that protected the traditional land rights of adivasis. In 1909, he also founded the Chota Nagpur Catholic Cooperative Credit Society, which saved the tribals from money lenders, while the cooperative stores he founded in 1913 helped the adivasis to get a fair price for their agricultural products.
But the tribals in other parts of India were not so lucky to have a Lievens or Hofmann and they lost thousands of hectares of land to dams, mines, factories and other developments.
This loss of land made them become migrant laborers who were totally helpless when they lost their work due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They had no alternative but to walk hundreds of kilometers to reach their home states because the pittance they earned hardly sufficed both for bread and conveyance. Besides, there was no public transport available due to the lockdown. Hence the long walk on foot.
Wake-up call for the Indian Church
When it comes to the Dalit or scheduled caste population, matters are worse because they never had land according to the caste ethos prevalent in India. Despite comprising 16.6 percent of India’s population of 1.35 billion, Dalits are considered outcastes on the lowest rung of the caste system decided by birth. They have no other option but to be a migrant worker in some faraway state.
The pandemic has brought to the fore the stark reality that Dalits and adivasis — 25 percent of India’s population — are in the grip of a social and political world view that keeps them in perennial penury. The situation is a wake-up call for the Indian Church. In the words of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum: “The oppressed workers, above all, ought to be liberated from the savagery of greedy men.”
These greedy men are more widespread in northern India, where the feudalistic zamindari system has deprived millions of people of their land. One individual owns thousands of acres of land while millions of Dalits and tribals do not get even a small tract, even for cultivating what is essential.
Here land-ceiling laws hardly exist and, even if they do, they are easily circumvented by a landlord-politician nexus. It is different in the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where equity-based rational social movements emerged because of the spread of education. The Catholic Church was a commendable contributor through its hundreds of educational institutions where Dalits and adivasis were welcome, while many schools owned by higher castes were not so welcoming because of various excuses.
But in northern India the Church’s presence is not as palpable as in the South, and the overall atmosphere is rather unfavorable to it due to the orchestrated animosity towards colonial rule which many people identify with Christianity.
Yet the Church has done quite a bit to save the land and livelihoods of adivasis and Dalits through socially committed priests and nuns. Free legal aid initiated by Jesuit Father Joseph Idiakunnel were instrumental in saving the land of thousands of adivasis in Gujarat.
Even the land legislation of 1992 and 2006 brought about by the government in favor of the tribals were the indirect impact of Idiakunnel’s legal aid programs. The 2006 legislation helped many adivasis to regain the land they had lost to money lenders and others.
But when we examine the all-India scenario, everything weighs against the adivasis and Dalits, forcing them to be landless migrant laborers whose plight has come under the spotlight due to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown forcing them to tolerate pathetic conditions wherever they work.
They were forced to walk many kilometers to reach their home states not because they have a Promised Land waiting there but because they feel at least they have a small house or even a hut to stay instead of being in an open, miserable place. But to see these hapless people tramping along in the scorching summer heat moves anyone with a heart and eyes.
Their plight is an invitation to the Church in India to be a Moses like Sister Dorothy Stang, who gave her life for the land rights of the indigenous people of Peru. In India too, we had Catholic nuns like Sisters Rani Maria and Valsa John, who were assassinated because they advocated for the rights of Dalits and adivasis.
But the Church has much to do to give these people a Promised Land, a physical and psychological comfort zone to save them from being hapless migrant workers. Their plight is an invitation to her in the words of A Migrant Song by Ernest Flanagan:
Can you walk this road with me?
Can you share my agony?
I'm 500 miles away from home
With a baby on my hip
And no water I can sip
As I walk 500 miles towards my home.
Joe Palathunkal is the managing editor of Living in Faith group of publications in India.