For the ruling Trinamool Congress(TMC) in Bengal, its proverbial share of good luck seems to have run out in the tenth year of its tenure. The state administration, as even neutral observers agree, cannot cope with the challenge of providing gainful employment or proper medical care, for migrant workers who have returned home in distress. Given its palpable failure to handle the Corona virus pandemic, with its meager resources already overstretched, the super cyclone Amphan on May 20 could not have come at a worse time.
‘It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back’, said a retired state police chief. ‘ This year, the fates have been very unkind to the TMC, no question. Except for the Aila cyclone of 2009, all other storms hitting the Eastern seaboard largely spared Bengal , as Bangladesh and Odisha bore the brunt of the damage.’ The state government may be functioning poorly, but it is also open to question whether any other dispensation would have done much better.
Worse, Amphan added to the woes of the state administration which now finds it near impossible to keep its highly publicised promises. To given one example, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced an immediate relief of Rs 1,000 for every migrant worker returning home in distress, on arrival. ‘Prochesta’(Endeavour) she had called it. Those who did not possess job cards issued by the state were entitled to a priority. The objective was to help workers in the unorganised sector, the poorest and most vulnerable people.
Accordingly, local media reports said that there were around 670,000 applicants. But only 1,62,808 people have received their money costing the state exchequer around Rs 16 crore. This means that nearly 80% workers did not get paid ! The number incidentally is only around 0.3% of the state’s total workforce. As of now there is no report yet that more payments are about to take place soon. The gesture could have been intended as a tokenism— good for politics, but a pittance by way of relief.
Ms Banerjee had promised to arrange for special skill development projects to empower unskilled workers who had returned. She had also assured them of work in the MNREGA schemes where the minimum wage is around Rs 200. Unfortunately, nothing has moved on either front. With many areas in South Bengal districts still running short of power and much low lying land still under saline water from the Bay and the Sunderban creeks, there has been little work under the 100 days scheme in many districts.
Most returning migrants are keen to return to Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha and other states as soon as possible, now that the lockdown has been eased. The reason : as Wazid Ali , a resident of Murshidabad district was quoted by the local media as saying, the going rate of daily wages for an unskilled worker in Odisha is around 500 and between Rs 600/700 in Kerala, in real estate and engineeering factories. This is almost twice or more than what even a skilled worker in Bengal earns these days. No wonder several buses sent from Odisha were sent recently to take back some workers from Bengal.
Further, there are reservations about the nature of the local 100 days work programmes . At best, according to a labourer in South 24 Parganas, one gets called up for 13/14 days a month. Now on account of the Corona virus pandemic and the subsequent Amphan devastation there is much urgent repair work under way where local labour has already been employed, leaving little room for additional help. In any case , he was earning much more than Rs 200 daily working as a cook at a Haryana dhaba. He along with others is about to go back there rather than stick around here.
With remittance amounts earned by migrant workers about to take a major hit during Corona-ravaged 2020 world over, Bengal , already financially stressed , faces further major losses. Its annual GDP is currently estimated at over $170 billion , of which around 10% comes from remittances earned by around 6 million Bengal-based workers who currently work in other Indian states. Some economists therefore take a practical view and do not regard the exodus of migrants to other states as anything other than a ‘major blessing’ in the present grim economic scenario. In many families the money sent in regularly by these migrants meet on average between 50 to 75% of the monthly expenditure of their families living in Bengal.
This would never happen if all the migrant worker chose to stay back home , participating in the political programmes of local political parties, all these years..
(Ashis Biswas, a veteran Calcutta-based journalist , is the news editor of Easternlink)