Having been born in Bihar and having spent most of my life so far in Mumbai I take the liberty to speak from both sides, to both criticize and boast. If you’re wondering what does Cow Belt refer to, well, it refers to the Great North Indian Gangetic Plains or simply the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
I have been meaning to write about this for quite some time now but somehow so far my laziness got the better of me, but now, the on-going migrant crisis- a product of this dreary pandemic has put me to my desk.
Before I talk about the migrants and the crisis that has engulfed them, I would like to go through all the other points that I have on my list.
Pre — Independence
Let’s not start from the very beginning, we all have read our history books in school and so we know about the glorious past of the land under discussion, I do not want to delve into the past and boast about the people who lived centuries ago as most people like me do. The ancient glory of this place is perhaps the most common comeback used to tackle all the ridicule that is thrown upon us by almost every other person, some choose to express in words, some remain silent to not hurt our feelings or to not sour our relations but almost everyone has that in their minds.
The reason I do not want to pay much attention to ancient times is that I believe, that easy comeback has somehow stifled the progress of this region, instead of working towards making the place better a lot of people prefer to live in the past and keep their spirits high by thinking how lucky they are to be able to call this great land their home.
What I do want to discuss is the British Raj and the subsequent Independence movement. This region along with Bengal was amongst the first to fall into the hands of the British, after their victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and subsequently in the Batte of Buxar in 1764, the British sowed the seeds of their infamous ‘British Raj’ in India in this very place. So this place remained under British control for the longest period and courtesy to their incessant looting which no one has to be made aware of, this region was the worst affected among the Indian states. The region was made a victim of not just economic exploitation, but the cultural and religious harmony was also systematically shattered, the effect of which is still visible in the statistics showing the number of lives lost due to riots and other such unrest (danga-fasat).
This place was, not so surprisingly, also the place where the resistance against the British Raj took root, Champaran Satyagraha was the starting point of Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist movement which led us to the stroke of the midnight hour on 15th August 1947 bringing us freedom from the exploitative “Gora sahibs”.
Talking of independence, how can I not mention our first and longest-serving President, Dr Rajendra Prasad. Every child in Bihar even if he/she runs away from the village school after lunchtime proudly displays this fact to whoever they can.
In this discussion, the Post-Independence period is perhaps the most interesting. Arguably, post-independence this region has been the political centre of India. This region gave us the majority of our Prime Ministers, even if we exclude our beloved Modiji who represents this region in the Parliament even when he wasn’t born here, the statement still holds. Also noteworthy is the fact, seldom mentioned due to the obvious controversy that may ensue because of it, is that we have had no PMs who could not speak the language of this land, Hindi. Former President Pranab Mukherjee famously remarked “No Hindi, No PM”, that the reason he could not be made the Prime Minister was because he could not speak Hindi. But he is not alone, Tamil stalwart K Kamaraj also believed the same, and hence declined to be the PM after Nehruji and Shashtriji’s demise.
We should also not forget the “JP Andolan”, led by the Gandhian freedom fighter Jayprakash Narayan it was the movement which uprooted Indira Gandhi’s rule, considered to be the most powerful of all Indian Prime Ministers. The movement which was born in this very region, the historic Gandhi Maidan of Patna standing to be its witness, spread throughout the nation and transformed into a humongous student propelled movement which also gave rise to a substantial portion of the current generation of our politicians, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Arun Jaitley(late), Ravi Shankar Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sitaram Yechury, Kamalnath, to name a few.
Even today, in the months before elections in these states, we see a majority of our central cabinet ministers shifting their base from Lutyens Delhi to the maidans of Lucknow and Patna.
Coming to the note that I started this blog on, migration is nothing new for this land. It started well in the times of the British Raj when indentured labourers were sent to work in the plantations in countries like Mauritius, Fiji, the Caribbeans among others. Bhojpuri became a widely spoken language in most of the places these people were sent to. In Mauritius especially, the migrants rose to aristocratic positions by leading the independence movement, the majority of Mauritian Prime Ministers trace their roots back to the flat alluvial plains of Ganga.
It’s of utmost importance here to talk about the reasons why these states became the source of such huge exodus of the working-class population. The reason that we can easily comprehend is the derelict state of economic and industrial activity in these states. As mentioned earlier, the British Raj systematically shattered the very structure of the society and paid no heed to any economic development of the people. After independence, the Central government enacted “Freight Equalization Policy” which is considered to be the biggest impediment to this region’s economic and industrial growth. Before the enactment of that policy, as mineral resources were largely available in this part of this country, especially in the erstwhile undivided Bihar, industries began to flock around the mines to avoid the transport costs, by the Freight Equalization Policy, the government made those minerals available across the country at the same rate which led to the shift of the industries to the coasts where easy shipping was a lucrative advantage.
Although, the economic apathy of these states cannot alone be blamed on “others”, the local politicians and people are equally if not more responsible. There cannot be any denial of the misrule that these states received from their own leaders all of whom were more interested in national politics to fulfil their ambitions of taking important positions in the national cabinet.
For decades, these states have been neglected by their very own leaders who were busy in festering the caste and religious lines to safeguard their vote banks and ensure perpetuity to their rule. The people are also to be held responsible as they elected and kept electing such leaders and paid no heed to their economic development, the “Jungle Raj” of Lalu Yadav calls for a mention here which lasted for 15 long years. Only now in the 21st century, these states have shown development on the lines of the rest of the country and there is enough reason to believe that the people now finally are trying to get over their developmental handicap.
With a non-existent industrial base and a huge population, these states became the sources of unswerving migration. The migrants are known mostly as unskilled or semi-skilled labours performing manual labour mostly in the unorganized sector. But that’s not it, these aren’t the only migrants, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are the biggest sources of Human Captial, more importantly, working-class Human capital. The youth from these states are increasingly dominating various sectors of our economy, for now at least in numbers. The Banking Sector, the IT Sector, government-run companies and institutions, to name a few. Government sector especially, as the love for “Sarkari Naukri” among these people seems to be undying. Numerous studies portend that people from these states would not just be seen doing menial jobs but also dominating almost all sectors of our economy, and that is because of the simple reason that these states also would represent the highest percentage of the working-class population, the shift from being only seen doing what is popularly termed as “labour-jobs” to these sectors is worth noting.
The plight of our nation builders is a cause of pain for all of us, the parochial approach of the government in dealing with the crisis being the biggest reason behind it. It seemed as if the government remembered all but these helpless people, the people worst affected by the pandemic, the first ones to lose their livelihood in this battle of humanity against the invisible enemy. They were left to fend for themselves with picayune support coming from the infinitely wise rulers of our nation. Even the sacrosanct apex court of our country could hear their bays for help only after receiving a letter from senior Bar Council members adjuring the lordships to help the helpless, not a sight we would want to see in such testing times.
This migrant crisis may lead to short and medium-term crises for the industrial sector which cannot function in the absence of these workers. The hardships faced might lead to some amount of reverse migration on emotional grounds, especially in the short term. There have been numerous reports of migrants willing to take whatever employment available close to their homes and not return to their former workplaces, “noon-roti khayenge pardesh nahi jayenge” (noon is Bhojpuri/Maithili for salt).
I must also mention that the great people of our great nation have shown their large-heartedness and sympathy towards the migrants; corporates, NGOs, celebrities, even individuals across the nation have tremendously helped these people in the worst of their times, Sonu Sood requires no introduction in this matter, he has been an angel in the literal sense of the word for these people. People living by the highways have been doing whatever they can to provide food and water to the migrants passing by, I earnestly thank all those who have done their bit in helping our migrant brothers and sisters.
Follow me Abhishek Jha for more such content.