‘Migrant Express’ Lays Bare West Bengal’s Employment Crisis
Never ending tale of joblessness
“He hasn’t slept properly since returning. He talks continuously while sleeping and wakes up several times in the night,” said Rumpa Biswas. She is wife of Rabi Biswas who is among the fortunate who returned home alive from the fatal train tragedy in Odisha’s Balasore on June 2 when three trains collided with each other.
Rumpa said Rabi is having nightmares where he imagines someone is attempting to injure his legs. Her husband, who was on board the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express, had his left leg severely wounded which required surgery. He won’t be able to walk for at least three months. He has sustained several injuries throughout his body as well but thankfully they didn’t need to be operated.
Dubbed as one of India’s worst railway accidents, the tragedy near Bahanga Bazar railway station in Odisha's Balasore saw the Coromandel Express entering the loop line at full speed, instead of continuing on the main line, due to a signal failure. It resulted in the Chennai-bound train’s collision with a stationary train parked on the loop line.
Due to the high speed of the Coromandel Express, 21 of its coaches derailed, while three of them hit the oncoming SMVT Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express on the neighbouring track. The crash of three trains has resulted in the death of 291 people so far and has left more than 1100 people injured.
Rabi, a resident of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, is among the injured. “I was trapped under dead bodies and debris for more than six hours. I stayed alive because my head didn’t get buried.” He further explained how those six hours in the dark were the most horrific moment of his life.
“People all around me were crying desperately for help. I couldn’t see anyone but I knew something major had happened. I was also shouting as loudly as possible. With passing time, many calls for help fell silent. I don’t know what happened to them as I was immersed in my own struggle.”
Rabi noticed help arriving after 2-3 hours when the surrounding darkness was replaced by bright lights. Police and medical officials were visible to him and the rescue operation had begun. However, it took a few more hours to transfer Rabi to a hospital as debris had to be cleared and train compartments had to be cut.
32-year-old Rabi’s destination was Kozhikode in Kerala, where he had been working as a daily wager in different sectors for the last six years. This time, after a vacation, he was taking along his friend Sanjay Dutta as well. Their journey was cut short by the terrible train tragedy. Sanjay, 28, has also suffered injuries on his legs, waist and head.
They were not alone on their journey to the south of India in search of livelihood. Most of the 103 people killed in the accident were migrant or would-be migrant workers from Malda, Jalpaiguri, South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Howrah and Barddhaman districts, spanning across West Bengal.
Almost the entire West Bengal bore the brunt of the Balasore train accident as it cast a shadow over hundreds of families in the state. One of the most tragic stories of the state’s loss came from Sundarbans in South 24 Parganas, where five people from one village died, including three brothers. They were traveling to Andhra Pradesh to work as daily laborers.
Every day, hundreds of jobless youths from West Bengal board south-bound trains, mostly with unreserved tickets, with the hope of getting a job. Widely regarded as the ‘Migrant Express’, the Coromandel is a vehicle for Bengal’s jobless youths to move towards a prosperous life. However, the train’s June 2 journey turned fatal, killing hopes of hundreds of families who either relied or were hoping to build a future on remittances from the south.
“What will people like us do here? There’s no scope. I had been trying to get a work which would pay me a good-enough salary to sustain my family since the pandemic. You tell me can a person in 2023 survive a family of four with a daily wage of Rs 300?,” an aggrieved Sanjay Dutta asked this correspondent.
He continued, “I can work as a labourer at construction sites and factories. I can drive and I have also experience of working in fast food stalls. But these works in West Bengal don’t pay much so Rabi asked me to go to Kerala with him where he promised I could earn a daily wage of Rs 6-700 easily. So, I decided to join him.”
Unemployment and the resulting out-migration of jobless youths in search of work have been affecting West Bengal for more than a decade now. According to the 2011 Census, over 2.4 million people, or about 2.6 per cent of West Bengal’s then 91 million population, were found to be lifetime outmigrants.
Additionally, over 1 million people were reported to be intercensal migrants as per their last residence within 0-9 years, found an EPW paper in 2021, authored by Manipur University’s Avijit Mistri. The paper, titled ‘Migrant Workers from West Bengal since 1991: From the Left to TMC Government’, further said that the number of outmigrants from West Bengal increased by an average of 0.28 million every decade since 1991.
Even though the 2011 Census reported that Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi accounted for the highest number of migrant workers from West Bengal, the 2017 Economic Survey by the Union Ministry of Finance highlighted the surging rate of migration to south Indian states, especially from West Bengal.
“The economic development, job opportunities and daily wages in the southern states are considerably higher,” noted another paper, titled ‘Bengali Migrant Workers in South India: A Mixed-Method Inquiry into Their Earnings, Livings and Struggle During Covid Pandemic’.
Kerala, with over 2.5 million people working abroad and sending money home, has a vacuum created in the manual labour and other works that is filled by the migrant workers from northern and eastern states, said the paper published in The Indian Journal of Labour Economics in 2022.
Dr Subrata Mukherjee, one of its authors, said, most of the workers unskilled or semi-skilled workers hail from the rural and semi-urban regions of West Bengal, one of the most densely populated states of India.
“Agriculture in West Bengal has remained stagnant. Employment in industry has not grown, nor in services. As a result, the existing sectors cannot absorb the state’s growing labour force. Low wage rate is the other major factor that forces workers to migrate out of West Bengal,” he said.
Dr Mukherjee further explained that workers earlier used to travel in numbers to states like Delhi, Maharashtra and Gujarat. But they were mostly discriminated against by the Hindi-speaking migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. “Bengali workers now travel to south India and predominantly to Kerala,” he added.
“Wages in Kerala are three times higher than in West Bengal. We found about a third of Bengali migrant workers in Kerala are unskilled and footloose workers who are not tied to a specific job or sector. These workers, many of whom are illiterate, face uncertainty in finding regular work in West Bengal, but less so in Kerala and other southern states.”
According to the RBI, daily wages for agricultural and non-agricultural laborers in West Bengal are significantly lower than in Kerala, at Rs 305.3 and Rs 320.7 compared to Rs 726.8 and Rs 681.8, respectively. The difference is even greater in construction work, where an average worker in rural West Bengal earns Rs 333.4, while a worker in Kerala earns Rs 837.7.
However, the migration of lakhs of workers from West Bengal doesn’t reflect the state’s continuous growth in several economic parameters. As per the Reserve Bank of India’s statistics, Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of West Bengal grew from Rs 4.6 lakh crore in 2010-11 to Rs 13.01 lakh crore in 2020-21 in current prices.
It even recorded a growth of 1.2 per cent in 2020-21 during the peak of Covid-19 pandemic when India’s overall GDP contracted by 7.7 per cent.
The Economic Survey 2022-23 registered the unemployment rate in West Bengal at 6 per cent, well below the national average of 8.2 per cent. Surprisingly, West Bengal’s unemployment rate was lower than Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi. Only Karnataka and Gujarat fared better than West Bengal.
West Bengal’s worker population rate (WPR), defined as the percentage of employed persons in the population, and the labour force participation rate (LFPR), the percentage of persons in the labour force in the population, 38.3 and 40.8 respectively were also better than the national average of 34.2 and 37.2.
In these criterions, West Bengal outperformed almost all the south Indian states and other highly-industrialised states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Despite these positives, West Bengal has failed to create jobs for its people in tandem with the percentage of its growth or development, which is also known as employment elasticity. As per the EPW paper the agriculture and industry sectors, which employed over two-thirds of West Bengal’s workers in 2011, witnessed negative employment elasticity in the 2010s.
“The elasticity of the service sector has been observed to be positive in the last three decades. But it has started to decline since the middle of the 2000s, and finally reduced to 0.15 during 2011–12 to 2017–18,” the paper noted.
Consequently, the gap between household incomes in West Bengal and the more industrialised states has widened. As per a state-wise analysis of farmers’ welfare in India by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) in 2021, the average monthly household income of Rs 6,860 in West Bengal stood lower than the national average of Rs 8.059.
Except in Andhra Pradesh, households in all the south Indian states and Maharashtra and Gujarat earned more on an average than West Bengal.
The ‘Annual Survey of Industries 2019-20’ by the Union Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation found that West Bengal has only 9,757 factories, fewer than by several thousands in comparison to industrialised states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
As per the RBI figures, the total invested capital of Rs 1.97 lakh crore in West Bengal in 2019-20 is dwarfed by similar numbers of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Even Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have more invested capital than West Bengal.
According to a report, presented by University of Burdwan professor Anirban Banerjee at a conference hosted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, 21,521 industrial units closed down in West Bengal between 2016 and 2021. The number of clearances of big industries declined from 1,337 to 1066 during the same period.
The report noted that under the chief ministership of CPI(M)’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the immediate predecessor of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, the state was fourth in industrial development “but now West Bengal is in industrial backwaters”.
The Trinamool Congress government, which rose to power on the back of its movements against land acquisition for large industries in West Bengal’s Singur and Nandigram, has an inherent anti-industry reputation which it has failed to brush off till date, the report said.
The TMC administration, though, blames it on the Centre for the state’s crises of joblessness and outmigration. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party have attacked the BJP-administered central government for withholding West Bengal’s due funds of Rs 7,500 crore under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Media reports have suggested that the Centre’s decision to stop the funds has put lives of 13.2 million MGNREGA workers in danger as there have been no works under the scheme for more than a year now. NREGA Sangahrsh Morcha, a rights group for MGNREGS workers, claimed that Rs 2,744 crore out of the due amount was for the wages of workers that have been pending since December 2021.
The Centre’s freezing of MGNREGA funds has also led to workers taking up illegal and deadly works to make their ends meet. Multiple people died in an explosion in an illegal firecracker unit in West Bengal’s East Midnapore in May.
Two of the deceased were reported to be MGNREGA workers who were forced to join the illegal firework factory after failing to get their pending wages and further works under the employment scheme.
Taking a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP after the incident, TMC MP and the party’s second-in-command Abhishek Banerjee had said, “Today, people are risking their lives to make a living… Because they could not find any work they were forced to take jobs in illegal firecracker units.”
“Narendra Modi and Amit Shah cannot escape responsibility for this. If the 100-day work money of Bengal had been released, lives would not have been lost.”
However, Dr Subrata Mukherjee refutes the government’s claim that the release of MGNREGA funds would solve West Bengal’s crises. He said, “People were moving out of the state even before the MGNREGA funds and works were stopped. The daily wage for MGNREGA is too low keep workers in the state and it was also never a regular employment option.”
“People are leaving West Bengal because wages in south India are higher and work opportunities are more. OutMigration will continue even if the due funds of the state are released and MGNREGA workers get their pending salary,” said Dr Mukherjee.
The central government, and the BJP, on the other hand, has accused the Trinamool administration of misusing MGNREGA funds. The Centre extended the imposition of Section 27 of the Act on West Bengal for the financial year 2023-24, withholding the state’s pending funds on the grounds of rule violations while implementing the scheme.
In a tacit agreement that corruption had indeed taken place in the distribution of MGNREGA funds, the state administration gave strict orders to its officers to recover misappropriated funds wherever the central government teams found cash irregularities.
Additionally, the ongoing investigations about scams in recruitments for teachers in government schools and for officials in several municipalities across West Bengal, and the alleged involvement of several high-profile TMC leaders and ministers including Abhishek Banerjee, have laid bare the rotten state machinery that has failed in providing jobs to its youths.