On migrant workers, ticket prices and bureaucratic language

The convoluted language in this circular from the Home Secretary on movement of migrant workers was mocked all around social media yesterday.


The mocking was well deserved. Communicating in simple language would never work for our babus, who don’t have many skills anyway.

But there is a deeper point here, which most people probably missed. Why did the sentence have to be so long and convoluted? The difficulty in constructing the sentence came from the fact that it was trying to define “migrant,” a term which has essentially no meaning. Who is a migrant and who is a local? It’s hard to differentiate these terms because they are both one and same.

Indeed, Indians anywhere in India are at home everywhere. A guy who boards a train from say Bihar and arrives in Mumbai looking for work is not in any particularly different category from anyone else in Mumbai. That is in the Fundamental Rights in the all important Part IIIA of the Constitution: right to reside and settle in any part of India.

In fact, India’s voter ID procedures make this absolutely clear. Even if you have nothing to your name and you sleep on the pavement, the BLO is supposed to verify where you sleep at night. If you are an Indian and you habitually sleep there, you are a local. There is no such thing as a “migrant.”

This may seem like a sterile academic matter, but it is not. It is at the heart of all the misconceptions that have come up around the issue of so called migrant workers, which has now become a political hot button issue.

When the lockdown began, lakhs of workers nationwide, daily wagers, those in unorganized sector, etc, found themselves out of a job. Within days, reports emerged that some of these so called migrants were trying to walk “home,” despite the impossibly long distances involved.

This should never have happened. They were Indians living and/or working in a place of their choice within India.  The migrant worker crisis began precisely because several state governments and media saw these people as some kind of outsider. When the crisis came, it was the duty of the respective state governments to take care of their needs. No, they didn’t need to go “home” because they were already at home! And no, Mr. Kejriwal, giving them one meal and dropping them off at the Uttar Pradesh border doesn’t count as taking care of them. They were not in Uttar Pradesh: they were in Delhi. Just because they may have family members in Bihar or UP or Jharkhand doesn’t mean Delhi government does not owe them anything.

Yes, we understand that times are tough and everyone has finite resources. And the last thing that should happen is richer states forcing people to move to poorer states.

Which brings us to the issue of who pays for the Railway to ferry “migrant” workers back “home”.

These people shouldn’t have had to go at all! In times of lockdown, large numbers of people migrating, that too in crowded trains, is a very bad idea. That too when most of them will be traveling from the worst affected areas to poorer states.

And if at all, these so called “migrants” had to be sent “home,” the least that the government of the “host state” can do is pay for their tickets. The reason this even became a dispute is because people seem to think there is such a thing as “host state” and “home state.”

And there is absolutely no justification for states asking the so called migrants to pay for tickets back “home.”

Of course, there are things here that the Central Government could have done better. The Railway is not selling tickets at stations, only transporting people brought by state governments. For example, the Railway could have sent a consolidated bill to states some days down the line.

For now, it is satisfying to know that the political firestorm has ensured that the affected people, already worst hit by the crisis, will not have to pay anything. In this firestorm, there is an important lesson in how an alert media can hold a government accountable for the slightest slip ups, thus serving the public interest.

Which is why it is so disturbing to see how some of the media has been so shy to hold  ‘secular’ Chief Ministers accountable during the crisis. This is making us less safe as a nation, not more. Only today, there was a media portal which carried, in all seriousness, an article mentioning Uddhav Thackeray as one of the best performers.  Apparently, because “it’s not about the extent of the spread of the infection.” Their words, not mine. Let that sink in.

11 thoughts on “On migrant workers, ticket prices and bureaucratic language

  1. The idea that Indians have a right to reside anywhere is not a well thought out issue even though it is a cause for a lot of political gripes.
    Take the example of the Telangana movement in recent history. One of the huge complaints was that the more enterprising and numerous Andhra Telugus were cornering the more lucrative jobs in Hyderabad, a city that Telangana Telugus consider their own. And this was a contention within a linguistic group which has been identified as having atleast a 2000 year old history of being the residents of Andhra Desha (not Telangana).
    Now as much as we would like to think all Indians have the same culture, there are clearly some differences (linguistic and cultural) and these must be taken into consideration.
    Imagine you live in a region X with a population of 100,000.Since you have free mobility migrants start trickling in. No one will complain at 100 or even 1000 people. Slowly increase that number and you’ll gradually see complaints arising. Some of them will undoubtedly be bigoted. Some will have to do with the migrants not assimilating and capturing prestigious jobs. Some will point out that the migrants are depressing wages of the locals.
    Are the latter two not valid concerns? Should they really be clubbed together with those screaming racist rhetoric.
    India is a Civilization state which has many cultures within her. Asking people to let their ancestral homelands be overwhelmed with demographic change of any kind is unreasonable. While we are all concerned about religious demographic change and rightly so, there seems to be an unwillingness to discuss other types of demographic changes that are equally, if not more, valid.
    The only way this policy of can reside anywhere can be enforced is by violently imposing a national culture like Han China or oppressively imposing via legislation and economics like the US did in the 19th century.
    I think a migration register must be maintained and citizens should have a domicile state identified. Very often, it is not the whole family that has migrated so these workers have their ration cards in their home state/village. In times of crisis, a register would help recognise those who need special provisions.
    Also, migration for work far away from your native place is not a sustainable solution. Over the next 50 years, there must be an effort to have decently large cities in every state.
    Modernisation is about smart standardization and efficient delivery of resources. Forcing people to live in villages because of nostalgia is bad policy.
    P.S. Just so we are clear, I oppose this petty mindset of not helping migrants being displayed in some states. These people have contributed to the local economy and have every right to expect some relief in this difficult time. My only contention with CW ji is that I don’t agree with the idea that there should be unfettered freedom of residence. As it is, this is not uniformly applied with all sorts of exceptions, clearly there is on the administrative level an awareness that this right is not anything beyond utopianism. Even Dr.Ambedkar ji during the drafting of the contract admits that this is a problematic proposition.


    1. I think without free movement and residence – there is no bharata desh…you should decide what is more important – bharat desh or telengana culture…imho if telengana culture cannot compete with inbound migrants u should take a stark look at telengana culture and not blame the migrants… culture/demographic invasion is an excuse for the real objective – harrasment of the migrant – so that competition is reduced … state sponsored harrasment of migrants is not bharatya culture… bogey of demographic invasion and culture loss is a mental abberation created by politicians who are usually low grade intellections and unethical beings devoid of ideas and solutions …


  2. That’s civil servant speak for you! Only, in imitating Sir Humphrey Appleby (of Yes, Prime Minister fame), Mr. Bhalla here most probably does not have the felicity with the English language were he to actually speak out what was written in his name. The words in the typewritten letter, of course, comes from some copy-and-paste material handed down for decades that the IAS officers routinely use to transact their business.

    Here is one of Sir Humphrey’s script from one of the TV episodes – our Mr. Bhalla kind of mimics this in painful exactness:

    Sir Humphrey:
    To put it simply, Prime Minister, certain informal discussions took place, involving a full and frank exchange of views, out of which there arose a series of proposals which on examination proved to indicate certain promising lines of enquiry which when pursued led to the realization that the alternative courses of action might in fact, in certain circumstances, be susceptible of discreet modification, leading to a reappraisal of the original areas of difference and pointing the way to encouraging possibilities of compromise and cooperation which if bilaterally implemented with appropriate give and take on both sides might if the climate were right have a reasonable possibility at the end of the day of leading, rightly or wrongly, to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

    Done! Some paperwork has been pushed by the said IAS officer, down the rungs of the bureaucracy, to be acted on in some hamhanded fashion by the minions in lower rungs. That’s the way the bureaucracy works and that, unfortunately, is how India continues to work in the 21st century.


  3. Bureaucracy communication will be what it will be. But the government should have announced free railway fare instead of asking 15% from states. States will extract the 15% from the passengers and then take the credit also. As it is, fuel prices have fallen hugely so the cost for railways will be lower than usual (for the diesel trains).

    There is huge confusion at state level on which migrant to give the ticket to. This is an environment ripe for corruption. The central government should have asked states to give a list and then applied its own methodology to select whom to give tickets to. Tickets could have been sms’d avoiding the state altogether.

    States should have done a better job. The migrants provided labour, paid taxes and deserved a better deal. They are Indians after all. This episode again shows how state governments fail when the crunch comes. If temples had been independent, they would have handled the migrant crisis far, far better with their funds. States dont save for the rainy day, they blow up temple money for secular purposes

    Without regular taxes coming their way, there is a risk that state governments will turn extortionist (e.g. fine every motorist that sets out). Most states are going to go bankrupt trying to feed the government servants and it will be interesting to see how they raise funds. Kerala has already defered state government salaries and doesnt have money to pay its employees, let alone pensions.


  4. Providing a railway ticket to a migrant worker is the cheapest thing a “host state” could do. Even if two percent of the migrant workers get infected with Coronavirus, just imagine the state resources the host state would have to spend not only on the inflicted migrant workers but other citizens who get infected by these sick migrants. And don’t forget these migrants live in clusters.


  5. As a Home Secretary one should be careful in the choice of words to be used in any official communications. The first sentence contains the word “migrant workers” which is patently wrong on many counts. There is no definition of “migrant workers” in any legal and constitutional laws and provisions. So for the Home Secretary to bring in such term in his letter addressed to Chief Secretaries of the State Governments is in itself wrong. Now all babus across the country will copy the term “migrant workers” in many documents citing precedent from HS no less!!

    Resident workers and Temporary workers are more appropriate terms. A Resident worker is one whose normal place of residence is at the place he earns his living. Temporary worker is one who there to do short term work like a farm worker who helps out during the harvesting season and goes back to his/her usual place of residence after the season ends. Migrant worker is totally wrong usage. As Home Secretary he should not have used such terms casually. This is not some friendly informal banter this is a official document communicating instructions to Chief Secretaries of States. The term Migrant worker is appropriate to define a foreign citizen who comes to India on a temporary work visa. This communication from HS comes across as tendentious and ambiguous. Welcome to the world of highly overrated Indian babus.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So Kejriwal has doubled taxes on liquor and press is doing wah-wah expecting the advertisement money of crores to start rolling in soon.

    Kejriwal is not going to find it easy to get money for his freebies post-China virus. This is the problem with freebie culture, you can live by freebies and die by the same freebies. A bankrupt Delhi government will find it difficult to keep on giving freebies and face the wrath of the voters

    AAP is going to invent some cock and bull story on how Modi is not giving money.
    BJP should be proactive and tell people that freebies is not sustainable and Kejriwal was just playing Robin Hood.


    1. What BJP tells people doesn’t really matter – as long as there exist reasonably padha likha, reasonably well-off Delhites running after Muft Muft Kejru with their greedy tongues hanging out 😓 It was not merely the Muzzies or the jhuggi jhopdi wala’s who gave Kejru his second landslide – it was these well-off, educated but brainlessly greedy Hindus who swung the balance 😏


      1. It is best to ignore the Nobel economics winners – this is not a real Nobel prize and goes to Leftists. If RaGa is really interested in doing something for the economy, he should not talk to likes of RRR or Abhijit Banerjee. He should talk to Mukesh Ambani or some other industrialist who is creating jobs

        BTW, governments are now facing cash crunch to pay the government employees, from where will they bring money to dole out ? Kejriwal already increased petrol/diesel prices in Delhi (in addition to putting a huge tax on liqour). For a year or two, people are not going to travel much, so government at centre and state will have to make do with low earnings from taxes on petrol and diesel. Also as jobs are lost, people will tighten their spending


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