The collapse of a stone quarry in Mizoram on Monday (14 November) that claimed 12 lives provides a sad commentary on West Bengal’s crashing economy.
Of the eight bodies of workers that were recovered by rescuers till Tuesday (15 November) evening, five belonged to migrants from Bengal.
And that speaks volumes about the unemployment that bedevils Bengal, forcing lakhs of its people to migrate to other parts of the country in search of low-paying hazardous work.
The deaths in the Mizoram mine collapse expose the fact that labourers from Bengal have replaced those from Bihar and from Assam in lowly-paid jobs in the Northeast. That is also a damning indictment of Bengal’s floundering economy.
Almost all labourers in sectors such as road-building, construction and mining in the Northeast used to hail from Bihar, Jharkhand and from the large community of Bangladesh-origin Muslims living in Assam, till the recent past.
In fact, this Bangladesh-origin Muslim migrant community in Assam has been, and still does, contribute a lot to the country’s labour force.
But statistics and anecdotal evidence show that even labourers from this community now migrate to states outside the Northeastern region because of higher wages there.
And they are being replaced by the unemployed from Bengal. What it means is that while the unemployed from Bihar, Jharkhand and (the Muslim migrant community of) Assam now migrate to non-Northeastern states because wages are higher in those states, unemployed men from Bengal are now migrating to the Northeast for lower-paying and/or more hazardous jobs of labourers.
Of course, Bengal also sends lakhs of its unemployed (illiterate, semi-literate and literate) to work as unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labourers in other states of the country, especially the southern and western parts of the country.
Four out of six labourers in the construction sector in Kerala are from Bengal while 60 per cent of the labour force in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra are from the Trinamool-ruled state.
In places like Gurugram and Noida, more than 80 per cent of maid-servants are from Bengal. Most of the semi-skilled workers in Gujarat’s diamond cutting and polishing industry, and Mumbai’s zardozi sector, are from Bengal. A majority of road-construction workers in Bengaluru and Chennai hail from Bengal.
Most of the migrant labourers from Bengal occupy the lowest slot in the employment ladder as unskilled workers drawing low wages.
Migrant labourers from Bihar and Jharkhand, two states which used to contribute the most to the country’s labour force, have moved higher up in the employment chain.
That is why most of the workers in the stone quarry in Mizoram where the disaster struck were from Bengal. Such jobs in mines of the Northeast are hazardous and low-paying, and the fact that most of the labourers working there hail from Bengal speaks poorly of Mamata Banerjee’s state.
Surprisingly, most of the migrant workers from Bengal working as daily wage-earners in the Northeast, as well as the rest of the country, are literate or semi-literate.
And that again speaks volumes about the quality of education, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas where almost all the unemployed hail from, in Bengal.
The stark reality is that the illiterates or barely-literates from Assam’s Bangladesh-origin Muslim migrant community get higher-paying jobs as labourers than semi-literate or literate labourers from Bengal!
There is enough anecdotal evidence from across the country to prove this. The stone quarry in Mizoram where an estimated dozen labourers met with a terrible end is just a case in point.
Ever since the late 1990s, migration out of Bengal started outstripping the number of migrants (labourers and unskilled job seekers) coming into Bengal from other states, especially Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
This has only gotten worse during the last eleven years of Trinamool rule in Bengal.
Most of the low-paying and unskilled jobs of labourers within Bengal are now filled by the vast army of unemployed from within the state. Earlier, most of the unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in Bengal’s now-extinct factories used to be filled by migrants from neighbouring states.
Construction labourers, rickshaw-pullers and other such vocations in Bengal used to be filled by migrant labourers from outside the state.
No longer. It is the unemployed and desperate job-seekers from within the state who work in these sectors now.
Officially, of course, the unemployment rate in Bengal is below the national average. But while a lot of those figures are fudged, what they also hide is that under-employment or disguised unemployment is rife in Bengal.
According to official statistics, Bengal has 88.67 lakh Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) employing more than 135.5 lakh workers. But most of these are extremely low-paying jobs and offer barely subsistence-level earnings.
And enumerators in Bengal even count a roadside tea stall earning less than a hundred Rupees a day as a micro enterprise!
Since the days of Left rule, Bengal has made the task of falsifying statistics into a fine art of deception. Hence, any statistic given out by Bengal invites scepticism and disbelief.
Bengal’s acute unemployment, which triggers the large-scale migration of its jobless to other states, is the direct fallout of its declining economy. The present dispensation has not been able to attract investments, especially big-ticket ones that can provide a lot of jobs and spawn more enterprises.
Bengal is now saddled with a huge debt burden — a whopping Rs 5.86 lakh crore — severely limiting the state’s capacity to finance public projects that can generate jobs. This has added to the state’s severe unemployment.
Bengal, once an industrial powerhouse, used to attract workers from other states. Bengal’s flourishing economy had spurred advances in many fields.
Today, not only do the state’s best and brightest migrate to the rest of the country and the world, due to lack of gainful opportunities within Bengal, a huge mass of its unemployed are forced to migrate to other states seeking low paying jobs.
The deaths of those labourers from Bengal working in a stone quarry in a remote part of Mizoram should serve as a grim reminder of the sorry state that Bengal is in today.
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