Return of Indenture

The Indian industry’s demands during the COVID lockdown echo the era of bonded labour

15 May 2020
Indian workers, who had been shipped to a sugar cane plantation in Natal, South Africa, in 1910. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, almost two million workers were moved to far flung corners of the world through indenture contracts.
Paul Popper/Popperfoto/ Getty Images
Indian workers, who had been shipped to a sugar cane plantation in Natal, South Africa, in 1910. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, almost two million workers were moved to far flung corners of the world through indenture contracts.
Paul Popper/Popperfoto/ Getty Images

On 2 May, my home state of Goa opened registration for migrants stranded by the nationwide lockdown, who wanted to cross state borders and return to their families. Huge numbers of hopeful workers lined up immediately. Less than forty-eight hours later, on the morning of 4 May, the chief minister Pramod Sawant made a startling announcement that 71,000 people had already registered for evacuation, with many more expected to follow suit. That evening, Manoj Caculo, the chairman and managing director of a family conglomerate spanning the automobile, hospitality, and real-estate businesses, wrote on his Facebook page, “This so called migrant travel is going to screw Goan Industry...They availed all our benefits and want to leave when we need to start work? Can understand some…but mass exodus??? Bad for Goan economy!!!!!”

The Caculo Group is front and centre in Goa’s commercial sphere—the only mall in the capital city, Panjim, carries the Caculo name. In May last year, Manoj Caculo was elected as president of the storied, 111-year-old Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose permanent members constitute an impressive roll-call of the state’s longstanding commercial stakeholders.

The day after his Facebook post, Caculo sent a letter to the chief minister, in his official role as the GCCI president, which complained, “It has been brought to our notice that many of these migrant workers were provided with shelter and food and wages during the entire period of lockdown and they were not really stranded in the true sense of the word.” It continued, “However, now that they are getting a free ride to their home states, many of these workers have left their employers high and dry and are making their way to their home states.”

Caculo further argued that “unchecked migration will have an adverse impact on some of the local industries, construction sector and agriculture.” His conclusion was, “We feel that the Government should put in place some screening/counselling process and see if those who are having jobs can be convinced to stay back. Our fear is that if they go now, it will take a long time for them or others to return and this will affect the working of many sectors as mentioned above.”

None of these sentiments are unique to Goa’s industrialists. Many of their counterparts across the country reacted in the same manner to the massive, ongoing exodus of distressed workers fleeing unsafe living and working conditions, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. On 6 May, Karnataka summarily cancelled evacuation trains after the chief minister BS Yediyurappa met with big players from the construction lobby—rail services resumed after a countrywide outcry. Two days later, Odisha, the home state of millions of migrant workers, imposed an onerous, and most likely unconstitutional, COVID-19 testing requirement—only migrants who tested negative would be allowed back into the state. The move was seemingly calculated to dissuade its citizens from returning home.

Vivek Menezes is a widely published photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown Indentured Labour
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