Tuesday, 28 February 2017

MIGRATION, IDENTITY, AND LABOR JUSTICE



Like me, many would have read the report about shanties being erected close to the Goa airport with much concern. There is no doubt that the safety of travelers cannot be compromised in any way. The shanties and the people living in them (largely migrant labor who have no proper housing), being directly in the landing and take-off zone, posed a threat to the security of flights, the report highlighted. The birds attracted by garbage left behind could pose grave danger for those traveling to and from the Goa airport, the report further argued. Recognizing this, the governmental machinery swung into action: the shanties were cleared, the people were removed, and a local panchayat was directed to clear the garbage. While the shanties and the people in them were cleared away immediately, the news report indicated that due to some logistical difficulties the concerned panchayat body would clear the garbage only a day later.

It struck me that the incoming and outgoing flights were not exactly out of danger considering that bird-hits were one of the major causes of concern. The garbage left behind would still attract birds, with or without the people. After all, the overriding concern was held out to be not so much with the squatters, but the security and safety of the flights.

Does this incident, therefore, tell us something about the way Goan society operates? How it treats people who don’t own much else than their labor which they sell for a few hundred rupees? There is no doubt that Goa is facing unchecked and rampant migration from the neighboring states. The rich who acquire retirement villas and huge tracts of land here, the hordes of tourists landing every day, and the middle classes from the rest of India who are employed in white collar jobs in Goa also affect the local demography adversely. All these pressures create an anxiety within the minds of local Goans. However, it seems that the poor and marginalized migrants whose services we actually use and exploit are the ones who get targeted.

We can juxtapose the abovementioned incident with that of the Vanarmare tribals in Ponda last October, as one of the issue in the Vanarmare case was access to proper housing. If many had argued for a humanitarian approach in dealing with the plight of the Vanarmares, what stopped the same kind of treatment being meted out to others who don’t even have a proper roof over their heads? The problem lies, I argue, in the manner in which we identify marginalized sections. Whereas the Vanarmares were tribal people and few in numbers, the recent case of people who were driven out from their squatting area were identified as ‘migrant labor’, thus forming a part of a larger group of people whose growing numbers (in comparison) could pose a danger to the local Goan.

But this doesn’t change the fact that neither the government nor the civil society in Goa have not been able to develop a proper policy to deal with the mushrooming slum areas and their possible solutions. There is a larger issue of Goan society being unable to respond to the problem of basic amenities being equally available to all. We observe how large scale resorts which guzzle up Goa’s water and gobble up Goa’s land are given a red-carpet welcome; even by bulldozing and beating up the local people as in Tiracol some years back. But nobody seems be interested in thinking of such measures as welfare schemes for affordable housing that could have checked the problem of growing slums, and tighter labor laws that would make it difficult to exploit laborers.

If there is a large population of migrant labor then the direct cause of it is a certain developmental politics that requires a large amount of labor. This largely goes unchecked as the market for such labor is unregulated. There are very little rights that the laborers possess by way of proper housing, health benefits, and minimum wage. Not to talk about these issues while discussing the mushrooming slums or unchecked migration is to deepen the problem further. For instance, in the recent Dabolim case we simply don’t know where the migrant laborer families shifted to. Following the demolitions in Baina in 2004, the residents simply spread to different parts of Vasco and other parts of Goa. Even in the case of the Varnamares, they were given voting rights but nothing was said about proper housing facilities thereby indicating the absence of proper governmental policies.

From the perspective of social justice, one can observe that most of the ‘migrant labors’ have prior experience of marginalization due to various circumstances that necessitates migration in the first place. Many activists who have tried to help out such communities affected by ‘demolition drives’ highlight how poor people who are forced to live in slums are in fact victims of caste and gender violence and are considered dispensable in the event a development project is envisaged. 

The issue ultimately needs to be understood as one of justice and human dignity. Such issues cannot be thought solely from the perspective of identity (or the threat to Goan identity), or the fact that growth in slums stick out as an eyesore on the Goan landscape. There is an urgent need for a system of checks and balances which while recognizing the rights of laborers also arrests the exploitation of the same people, and addresses concerns of local people about basic amenities and threats to livelihood. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 1 March, 2017)

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