On January 19, the collision of a truck and a tractor 50 km north of Surat resulted in the deaths of 15 migrant labourers who were sleeping on the footpath by the road. Twelve of them died, including a 1-year-old girl.

According to reports, all except two were from Rajasthan.

The incident received wide coverage in the media. For many, the incident evoked memories of the 16 migrant workers who were run over by a train as they slept on the railway tracks in Aurangabad in May as they were attempting to walk home during the Covid-19 lockdown. The lockdown made it clear that India’s cities are by design exclusionary for its 150 million-strong migrant workforce.

But now, it is imperative for governments, the media and society at large to have newer conversations around such tragic incidents. We must ask not about the specifics around such accidents, or merely the lapses in shelter policy, but who the dead were, where they came from – and why they had to seek work far from home.

Only then, will the predicament of migrant workers, both in rural and urban areas be addressed more productively.

That became clear as a team of the Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that works for migrant communities across South Rajasthan Gujarat and Maharashtra, met with some families of the deceased in Kushalgarh block in Banswara district immediately after the accident.

The story of Jeevan and Neeta

Among those who had died were Jeevan and his wife Neeta (names change to protect the family’s privacy), from Bhagatpura, a panchayat in the Kushalgarh block. The only earning members of their family, they are survived by Jeevan’s parents, his younger brother and a three-year-old daughter. Their land holdings are meagre – just like the hundreds of thousands of other migrant workers across the country.

Their relatives had taken a considerable loan to fund a wedding. Jeevan and Neeta had left for the city in search of work to help pay off that debt.

Jeevan and Neeta’s death has triggered a conflict in their village, starting with the custody of their child. Their daughter has been living with her paternal grandparents. But Neeta’s family is now demanding custody on the grounds that Neeta’s brother is a nominee entitled to government compensation recently announced on behalf of his dead sister. It wasn’t immediately clear how custody of the child would strengthen their claim.

Neeta’s brother’s proximity to influential community leaders revealed that the traditional social order is more powerful than rule of law. Community leaders hold positions in the local power structures so formidable, they usurp decision-making authority in matters that should otherwise involve the local administration and police. When Aajeevika Bureau’s team approached the bereaved family offering to help them access the compensation they are due, community leaders were quick to tell them to not cooperate.

With no surplus income from agriculture after they have met their basic needs, a granddaughter on the verge of being taken away from and the grief of having lost their son and daughter-in-law, Jeevan’s parents were devastated. Their younger son is 12 years old. It will now be his turn, to go to the city in search of employment.

Police officers inspect the site in Aurangabad at which 16 migrant workers were killed in May. Credit: PTI

Sujjan and Anita who died in the accident hailed from a village in the Sajjangarh block in Banswara. The siblings worked in Surat as daily wagers. Sujjan lived with his parents, wife, and sister. When he was old enough, he was married off by his parents. On previous trips, his wife and he would migrate to the city for work together. But because his wife was pregnant, Sujjan’s younger sister Anita (14) came along. She had been enrolled in school but it had been shut because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The family was able to meet their own food requirements from their own land but are dependent on work in cities for other expenses, such as weddings, funerals, ceremonies, and the other cultural festivities intrinsic to the social order of the region.

Sujjan’s parents are no longer capable of physically taxing work. His wife is now entirely dependent on her parents. Sujjan’s father said that he would go to Surat and seek the help of the panchayat head to obtain the compensation announced by the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan. But for the moment, they were busy with the last rites and rituals.

Looking at the statistics

The reason people like Jeevan, Neeta, Sujjan and Anita end up in Surat is blinding clear from the statistics.

The state of human development and welfare across the district of Banswara is worrisome. The 2015-’16 district fact sheet of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shows that only 11% of rural households are covered by a health scheme or insurance. Female literacy in Banswara is 40%, considerably below the state literacy data from the 2011 census for Rajasthan (66%).

A report by the Azim Premji Foundation shows that literacy in Kushalgarh block is 47% (35 % for women). The secondary school dropout rate is 25%. Banswara also has a predominantly rural geography, with only 7% of its population in urban areas, which is less than a third of the state average of 24%.

The head count ratio for poverty in the district – the proportion of the poulation that lives below the poverty threshold – is a staggering 50% in rural areas, as per a report by Rajasthan’s department of rural development and panchayati raj.

The head count ratio is the population proportion that exists, or lives, below the poverty threshold

These conditions resulted in people from these areas seeking work in cities. But because they receive meagre wages and must live in proximity to work, many sleep in the open, making them vulnerable to accidents like the one in Surat.

Every time tragedies like the Surat accident are reported, they, for a fleeting moment, evoke anger and anguish. The fact is that they are the consequence of a defunct welfare system, acute rural distress and a highly coerced rural social order. It’s time to ask questions about why this is so.

Anhad Imaan works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that provides support to seasonal migrant labourers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.