Temporary encounters, perpetual struggles: Covid19, train journeys and migrant labourers in India

Temporary encounters, perpetual struggles: Covid19, train journeys and migrant labourers in India

Manish Maskara

As an immediate result of Covid19 lockdown in India starting 24th March 2020, migrant labourers, who were otherwise invisible became visible to the public eye. With the lockdown, the operation of trains was banned. One could say, it was like the 1974 railway strike situation. Many migrant labourers walked back home, others used different modes and strategies of transportation to reach their hometowns and villages while many others waited.

Only after 30-35 days of lockdown i.e. on 1st May 2020, globally celebrated as International Workers’ Day, the Indian Railways introduced special trains viz. Shramik (Worker) Special to facilitate migrant labourers’ return to their villages. However, the plight of the labourers worsened on travelling by these trains.

Before the lockdown as well, the everyday experiences of the migrant labourers in train journeys have not been pleasant or free from miseries and struggles. Such experiences are fostered through different encounters migrant labourers have, in due course of their temporary yet frequent train journeys between city and village or vice-versa. To highlight the same, I draw from previous studies of these encounters, coupled with my observations and conversations at railways stations in both the ‘normal’ times and the time during lockdown.

Railways, Special trains and migrant labour
In the global context, railway connectivity between different regions have facilitated long distance circulation of migrant labourers, in cases of, South African mine workers, Irish migrant agricultural labourers and Chinese migrant workers. In the case of India, Ian J Kerr’s book gives an exemplary account of the Indian railways built during the colonial times involving millions of labourers.

While the gradual development of train links led to an increase in supply of labour, train connectivity between stations gives us ample insight into the labour-sending states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal etc. and labour-receiving cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi etc. Migrant labourers in India travel for as long as 4-5 days from their villages to cities to work and also make frequent visits back to their village, thereby making train journeys significant in the process of migration. Most migrant labourers usually, and in my observations as well, travel in unreserved or general coaches of trains which come at a cheaper fare.

While young migrant labourers narrate their experience of travelling like cattle, increasingly migrant labourers are preferring to travel in reserved compartments. Trains such as Antyodaya Express, Vivek Express, Jan Sewa Express etc. are heavily used by inter-state migrant labourers from Eastern India so much so that they have been colloquially referred to as migration trains. However, in the case of Shramik Specials, what deepened the agonies of the inter-state migrants labourers wanting to go home was the politics of approval from different state governments regarding the availability and operation of trains.

Getting a train ticket: an arduous experience
Beyond just knowing the availability, connectivity and type of trains, Dolly Kikon’s recent book highlights that getting a train ticket is one of the most arduous experience for migrant labourers. To add to this, for permitted Shramik Special train routes, migrant labourers faced issues in the process of registration. In the usual scenario, while labourers get their tickets booked through their own personal network, others rely on their contractors or on intermediaries or brokers locally known as dalals for securing tickets.

In fact, during peak times of travel associated with agricultural sowing/ harvesting, marriage or festival season; booking tickets in advance is not an easy game. Moreover, the uncertainty of payments for daily wage migrant labourers coupled with other factors puts them back into making use of informal networks for booking their tickets at the last minute. To make matters worse, while while migrant labourers were already suffering from the loss of wages in the lockdown, ticketing agents resorted to cheating the migrants desperate to go home by the Special trains.

While availing a ticket is not easy, the same is also directly related to the fare the labourers pay for their travel, which could even be borne by the contractors who mobilise them for work. For the labourers, spending a lot of money on travel is unwise, as they could otherwise spend it on food and buy clothes, sweets etc. for their loved ones back home. To top it all, Shramik Special trains introduced dynamic pricing for booking tickets  which further took a toll on the savings of migrant labourers. Besides this, the proposal for payments of train fares for the labourers was caught in the politics between Central and state governments heightening the dilemmas and miseries of inter-state migrant labourers.

For the migrant labourers, their persistent need to make calculated decisions for their train travel and negotiate with intermediaries does not end with just availing a ticket. For those who buy tickets for unreserved compartments, their seats are often not guaranteedBeing the centre of attention, once migrant labourers reach the railway station as groups, they are seen as an easy catch for Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTE), colloquially addressed as TT, who are responsible for ensuring no ticketless travel on trains.

While I was spending time at a railway station-one of the prime source stations for migrant labourers-I observed TTs catching hold of labourers. Curious to know more, I struck a conversation with a few TTs who told me that they need to meet their daily target for the railways which, for them, was easy to achieve by charging ‘excess fare’ from migrant labourers. Beyond this, I also gathered that even the contractors who mobilise labourers collude with TTs and railway police, in ensuring seats for their labourers. In case of Shramik Special trains as well, it was the police who were collecting money in the name of giving tokens  to migrant labourers for travelling in Shramik Special.

Discipline and order at the railway station
Beyond negotiating for a seat, the labourers often encounter the railway police, who ensure discipline and order at the railway station. Labourers need to maintain a queue while boarding the train on its arrival at the platform. I was a witness to this drill at one of the prime destination stations in South India, during the peak season of labourers’ travel back to their villages. In my observation, hundreds of labourers had queued up before the trains approached the platforms for their departure. I could also observe various tactics deployed by them to remain in the queue and at the same time constantly discuss strategies for acquiring a seat in the train compartments.

One such strategy that came out during my conversations, were about their early arrivals at the railway platform to occupy front positions in the queue. In their scholarly research with migrant labourers travelling from Bihar to New Delhi, Pushpendra Kumar and Manish Kumar Jha point out that one has to be both tactful and patient at the same time to get into the train. In the middle of my conversation, as the train started to approach the platform, police were ready with their batons for those who were trying to jump the queue to board the trains. With the lockdown, the rules for social distancing enforced the rules of queueing up even the more, and hence boarding Shramik Special trains came with much stringent rules to be followed.

As the migrant labourers prepare for their journey, they pack enough food, water which may not suffice for journeys that go on for around 3-4 days. As far as Shramik Special trains were concerned, there was no provision of food and water. To add to their woes, Shramik trains took different routes and reached different destinations leading to massive delays of 2-3 days for the labourers in reaching their actual destinations. With no food or water, many of them died on the trains and platforms.

Perpetual struggles amidst temporality
While stories of pain and trauma of the migrant labourers travelling on Shramik Special trains continued, it also concealed the ordeals which migrant labourers went through during the lockdown. By now, millions of migrant labourers in India have been transported to their hometowns and villages while their return back in the trains to the cities have also begun. Also, their desire to back to their home during the lockdown and otherwise envelops their struggles travelling in trains.While facilitating circulation between the city and the village for their livelihoods, train journeys, in spite of being arduous, remain centric to lives and livelihoods of migrant labourers.

What we do not wish to see further is a repeat version of the ‘special’ experience that labourers had to go through travelling in Shramik Special trains. But what seems clear is that migrant labourers have learnt to live with their temporary encounters during train journeys even though their struggles remain perpetual.


Manish Maskara is a PhD student at SOAS, London studying the question of class formation for Bihari migrant construction labourers in India. Twitter: @maskaramanish25

Image Credit: Flickr by KOL Social, (Migrant labourers trying to return home from Mumbai, India)