Why Mamata’s TMC has a keen eye on West Bengal’s migrant workforce this Lok Sabha election

Why Mamata’s TMC has a keen eye on West Bengal’s migrant workforce this Lok Sabha election

Kolkata: A week after the CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act) rules were notified, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) held a press conference in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district alleging that 20 migrant labourers from the state were thrashed in Odisha and referred to as ‘Bangladeshis’. 

Not only did Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee intervene and bring back the labourers, but party MP Derek O’Brien also wrote two letters to Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, whose office assured the safety of Bengal migrants residing in the neighbouring state. 

The ruling TMC, which has often been accused by opposition parties of driving youth out of Bengal in search of jobs, has made migrant workers who are originally from the state one of its key focal points this election season. During her Red Road address to the public on the occasion of Eid last week, Mamata requested Bengal migrants to come back and vote. “We have come to power with your blessings. We would urge you to call your migrant relatives to come back to the state and vote,” she said.  

The TMC-led West Bengal government was the first in the country to form a 10-member West Bengal Migrant Workers Welfare Board in March last year, months ahead of rural polls. Its chairman and TMC Rajya Sabha MP Samirul Islam told ThePrint that at least 22 lakh migrant workers have registered themselves on the Karmasathi-Parijayee Shramik portal, a database of migrant workers from the state. Though the board estimates the current migrant workforce to be close to 28 lakh, the figures could be almost 40 lakh, according to media reports

“Our objective is to give these migrant workers an ID card, assist them with health insurance for which we are tying up with hospitals in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other cities. If they wish to return, we are providing them a loan of Rs 5 lakh and creating a data bank of jobs in Bengal to help them obtain jobs in their home state itself,” said Islam. 

The Bengal government-run board is operating Banga Bhawan in New Delhi with a nodal officer acting as a Centre-state bridge when it comes to migrant worker-related issues. “There are times when a migrant worker has died and the family needs assistance to bring the mortal remains back. We help legally, connect with the state governments and also give 25,000 to the family to bring back the body. An ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh is also given to the family,” said Islam. 

In 2019, five migrant workers from West Bengal were shot dead by terrorists in Kashmir. In June last year, around a hundred migrant workers from Bengal were among those killed in the horrific triple train accident in Odisha. Then in August, at least 23 workers from West Bengal were killed in the Meghalaya railway bridge collapse. And more recently, three migrant workers from Bengal were among those stranded in the Uttarakhand tunnel collapse and later rescued after 16 days in December. 

According to Election Commission of India (ECI) data, around 5.72 crore votes were polled in 2019 in West Bengal, and in 2021, that increased to around 5.99 crore valid votes. The TMC says this increase includes the migrant work force that had returned to Bengal amid the pandemic.

Islam said Mamata has always stood by migrant workers and has their support. What the TMC is doing for migrants is a separate matter and not linked to the welfare board, he added. Meanwhile, a senior Trinamool leader told ThePrint: “In 2021, one can’t deny that TMC’s vote share had risen and migrant labourers who were in the state due to consecutive lockdowns had supported the TMC.”

But the BJP claims that the TMC’s neglect towards this section is the reason it is suddenly warming up to migrant workers. Speaking to ThePrint, BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta recalled Mamata’s “Corona express” remark in 2020, when she criticised the Centre for running special trains for migrants amid surging Covid cases: “The comment made by the chief minister demeaned the migrant force, this is just a course correction. Mamata Banerjee is fear mongering and trying to consolidate the Muslim vote bank here in Bengal.”

Other state BJP leaders ThePrint spoke to said that the migrant force from Bengal majorly comprises minorities and thus the party in Bengal doesn’t design separate plans like its challenger TMC. They confirmed that the party doesn’t have a separate body for migrant workers, unlike their SC/ST morcha, minority morcha or mahila morcha. 

However, speaking to ThePrint, BJP’s Shishir Bajoria said that when his party is elected in Bengal, it will immediately focus on bringing back the migrant force by creating jobs in the state. Bajoria, a core committee member of the ‘Overseas Friends of BJP’, connects with NRIs to boost the BJP’s support in India and at the global stage. 

Political analysts feel the CAA rules announcement will further nudge migrants to return home to cast their votes in Bengal, which is why the TMC wants to ensure that this support remains with the party for the Lok Sabha polls. “It’s only since the pandemic that the TMC has taken note of the migrants seriously. In India, every prominent political party woos the migrants. Their support cannot be overseen when India has such a high inter-state migration of the unorganised labour sector,” said political analyst Jayanta Ghoshal. 

However, political science professor at Rabindra Bharati University, Biswanath Chakroborty feels migrants don’t hold a commanding position in Lok Sabha polls as much as they do in panchayat polls. “In West Bengal, migrant workers hold more importance in panchayat elections, very few would actually give up a week’s wage, spend money and travel to just vote,” he said. 

Also Read: For ‘mahila’ voters in Bengal, making ends meet is priority & Mamata ‘didi’ their main benefactor

Bengal migrant workers — in numbers

According to state migrant workers welfare board chairman Islam, the highest number of migrant labourers from Bengal engaged in construction work in other states are from Birbhum, Murshidabad, and Malda, while Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas see many travel to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu for textile-related work, and North Bengal has many engaged in the hotel services in North India. 

West Bengal’s “tight” labour laws are a reason for daily wage earners to take up jobs outside the state, he further said. “In West Bengal, we don’t allow more than eight hours of work. But in other states which allow overtime, the worker ends up earning double the amount outside Bengal.”

According to Census 2011 data, the last available official data, the total number of inter-state migrant workers in the country stood at 4.14 crore (4,14,22,917). States of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Rajasthan had higher number of migrant workers than West Bengal. 

Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment Rameswar Teli, in a written reply in Rajya Sabha last July, had informed the Parliament that “as per the report on migration in India, 2020-21, based on Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2020-21, released by Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), the total migration rate in India was 28.9% and in rural was 26.5%. Out of the total migrant persons, around 10.8% migrated due to employment related reasons.” 

Political analyst Ghoshal, quoted earlier, who has also authored a book on Mamata Banerjee’s 2021 electoral fight, says the TMC identified the migrant segment during the Covid-19 pandemic when they returned to the state in large numbers.

“The TMC doesn’t reach out to migrants directly, nor will it admit. But the party has surely understood their importance and wants to consolidate their vote share this time. But I don’t see migrants returning home in large numbers to vote for one day,” he added.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Mamata’s Hindu card, Modi’s jibe & a hospital — polarisation & deprivation in north Bengal battle


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