India – With Millions Of Unemployed Workers, Riots & Civil Disorder Are Not Far Away
The Indian media has shown on TV screens and internet streams how hundreds of thousands of migrant workers during the nationwide lockdown have been trying to reach their villages on foot, walking hundreds of kilometers, some dying on the way.
No doubt this has caused a lot of hardship and suffering to these people and their families, but the more important question, which nobody asks, is this: what will these people do after reaching home?
These workers had migrated from villages to the cities in search of a livelihood. The population of India increased from about 45 crores in undivided India in 1947 to about 135 crores today in India separated from Pakistan and Bangladesh, i.e. a population increase of about 4 times. There is therefore too much burden on the cultivable land. Moreover, machinery has partially displaced labour. So for both these reasons villagers migrated to cities in large numbers after 1947. It is estimated that in 1947, 85% Indians were living in villages and only 15% in cities. Today, it is believed only 60-70% Indians live in villages, and 30-40% live in cities.
Now to send back crores of people to their villages raises the question of their economic survival? There is no work for them there. They will only become a burden on their relatives, and would hardly be welcomed. In the towns they were earning some money which they would send back to their families. Now even their wives or husbands would hardly be happy at their return as they would not be earning at least for some time.
One is reminded of John Steinbeck’s great novel ‘Grapes of Wrath’ which is about migrants who fled from Oklahama, Texas, Arkansas and some other states of USA as they lost their livelihood (because of the dust storms and recession in the 1930s) to California where they thought they would get jobs, but found they were unwelcome as local workers thought they would depress wages, and would bring in disease.
Steinbeck writes, “Ripe grapes spill their juices when pressed for wine. Similarly, the migrants were ripe with wrath and boiling with anger that was ready to spill forth. In their souls, the grapes of wrath were filling, and growing heavy.”
The same can be said of conditions in India. I fear unless there is some drastic remedial measure undertaken by the government, food riots and civil disorder may start soon in many parts of India, as it happened in France in 1789 because of the bread shortages in Paris and other cities culminating in the French Revolution. Or as it happened in St. Petersburg In Russia when women demonstrated demanding bread in February 1917 caused the February Revolution.
Perhaps the Prime Minister should now consider forming a National Government including leaders of the present opposition parties and also some scientists, technical and administrative experts, as British Prime Minster Winston Churchill had done in May 1940 when faced with the looming danger of invasion by Nazi Germany.
Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.