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Finding a seat on the Karmabhoomi Express is close to impossible. A closer look at why so many migrant workers travel on it, and out of Bengal, offers a grim picture.
WEST BENGAL — Welcome aboard the 22512 Kamakhya-LTT Karmabhoomi Express — a metaphor, if any, of the acuteness of Bengal’s unemployment problem.
It is 10.28 pm at north Bengal’s Alipurduar Junction and the crowd has swollen to its peak. This is when the Karmabhoomi Express appears at the station. It is bound for Mumbai. Finding a seat on it is close to impossible. It is always chock full and there are always hundreds struggling to get a spot in the unreserved general compartment.
A railway reservation official is looking at the crowd. “I have been working on this route since 2015, and it’s always been an extraordinary scene to me,” he says.
It is a well known fact that the seats on this train get snapped up — the official says even four months — ahead of time. “Young people from lower-middle class backgrounds board this train in search of a livelihood. They are even willing to pay extra for AC tickets if sleeper class reservations aren’t available,” he adds.
The train, originally introduced in the 2010 Railway Budget by then Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee, was initially intended to run as an unreserved service catering to migrant workers. Now, Banerjee is chief minister of Bengal, which has seen a crippling lack of jobs for its young. However, out of the 20 compartments, only three remain designated as unreserved.
500 passengers instead of 120
As I stepped onto the train, it became clear to me that there were going to be no seats available for me. I simply followed the example of my fellow passengers and settled down on the floor, using an old newspaper as cushion.
This train is commonly recognised as the lifeline connecting the northeastern and eastern states of Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Odisha to the country’s financial hub. It takes approximately 54 hours to make the entire journey and almost invariably operates beyond its designated capacity. On the day I travelled, there were nearly 500 passengers on the general compartment meant for 120.
“You’re getting off at Burdwan, but I’m headed all the way to Mumbai. You’ll reach by tomorrow noon, whereas I’ll be getting off three days from now. Just wait and see the size of the crowd, it’ll grow!” says my co-passenger Arup Deka.
Deka was right. At every station along the way, more passengers continued to board the compartment, gradually filling even the spaces intended for luggage and those outside the restrooms. Many of the passengers carried bulky luggage, including bedding. From my conversations with them, it became apparent that almost everyone on this journey was migrating in search of better opportunities.
Swapan Dutta, seated in front of me, has been working in Mumbai for many years, similar to many of my middle-aged co-passengers.
Swapan says that every time he returns to his village, people ask him to help their sons find work in other states. “These young men are sitting idle at home because there are no job opportunities in the villages. We assist the youth from our villages in moving to places where jobs are available. They gradually learn the skills of the trade, start earning, and become confident” he says.
Then, he adds, “After all, families cannot marry off their sons just to ease their financial burdens,” indicating that this is common practice for daughters.
“Tell me, where can they find work here?” Swapan says.
It is often very hard to find seats on the overcrowded train.
India Rail Info
Emptied out villages
Over the last two decades, there has been a continuous rise in movement from West Bengal to other states in search of a livelihood.
A study published by Avijit Mistry in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2021 revealed that during the 2010s, there was a net outflow of people from the state, surpassing the number of individuals who moved in. While the initial signs of this crisis emerged towards the end of the Left Front government’s rule, the situation has deteriorated further under the current regime.
“Between 2001 to 2011, one lakh (100,000) people had migrated out of West Bengal, but in the following eight years, the number skyrocketed to 11 lakhs (1,1 million). A significant portion of these migrants are seasonal labourers seeking better job prospects, particularly in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, and the southern regions, which offer considerably higher wages than West Bengal,” says economist Ratan Khasnabish.
Although the state government has not officially released data on inter-state migration, during the COVID-19 lockdown, CM Banerjee announced the state government’s efforts to bring back 10.5 lakh (1,05 million) people from various regions of the country.
The West Bengal Migrant Workers’ Union (WBMWU), which is affiliated with CITU, the labour wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has carried out an initial statewide survey which has identified over 60 lakh (6 million) individuals who have migrated to other states.
“There are many villages in West Bengal where the entire adult male population has migrated to other states for work. This is unprecedented,” says Asadullah Gayen, a functionary of the WBMWU.
Gayen feels that the numbers at which Bengal youth migrate away also makes them vulnerable to anger from the original population of youths in other states, who feel that their local jobs are being taken away by them.
The quest for better opportunities
On the train, Sagar Mandal from the same Alipurduar district says he was forced leave his village near Hasimara in search of a job. His family had worked in the local tea gardens for generations, but the low wages in the tea industry made it increasingly challenging to make ends meet.
Most travellers on the train who were looking for a job had depended on either neighbours or relatives.
Mandal says, “Everyone in my family, including my grandfather is employed in the tea garden, but our daily earnings hardly reach Rs 600 ($7,21). I used to work as a daily labourer for a boulder contractor, but the pay was inconsistent. We didn’t have work every day. That’s when I reached out to Maqbool, a job contractor in Mumbai. He’s suggested that I relocate there for better opportunities.”
Most travellers on the train who were looking for a job had depended on either neighbours or relatives who already had one or labour contractors, like Mandal had.
I overhear a passenger talking to his mother on his phone. “Go to sleep, ma. Don’t worry. I’ll be there soon. There’s a broker there who said he’ll find a job for me,” he says.
Powered by determination
As the journey continues, some passengers doze off, while others turn to their phones for entertainment. In one corner, a boy begins to cry. Hearing his sobs, a fellow passenger in his twenties comes down from the bunk and puts an arm around him. “Come with me, bhai. We’ll work there, and everything will get better. I’ve been working there for seven years now, and I too cried when I first took this journey,” he says.
These lines are laden with hope but they do not reflect the true. Safety, in many of the industries where migrant youths work in, is an often neglected aspect.
Mithu Bhoumik, a construction worker from North Dinajpur, says it is determination that keeps them going.
“The newcomers learn by sheer determination. Do you think they’ll just stand around while everyone else works? They’ll start as helpers and will learn the tricks. I spent three months working with the head mason. I tied a rope around my waist and worked on the fifteenth floor, wiping and painting the glass windows from the outside. It made my head spin when I looked down at first, but I got used to it,” Bhowmik says.
Just last month, 23 workers from the state lost their lives in a tragic incident when an under-construction railway bridge collapsed in Mizoram’s Aizawl district. All of them were from Bengal’s Malda. Last week, a family of four from Alipurduar tragically suffocated to death in their small shack in Bengaluru. They had moved to the southern city only 10 days earlier to work in a poultry farm.
Even earlier, the June 2023 derailment of the Coromandel Express laid bare the bitter truth of labourers migrating to southern and western states in large numbers amid the drying up of central funds in the MGNREGA job guarantee scheme and the absence of rural jobs in the state.
Many take the train to find better jobs in the city.
A Bengal-specific issue
Earlier this year, the state government formed the West Bengal Migrant Workers’ Welfare Board to identify potential migrant labourers and create incentives for them to stay in the state as part of a larger plan to reduce the out-migration of low-skill or semi-skilled workers.
Samirual Islam, the chairman of the board and Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP, brushed away the suggestion that this was an issue plaguing Bengal particularly.
“The migrant worker is not a Bengal-specific issue, other states are also facing this. The West Bengal government has launched an app for the migrant worker, the only state to do so. Duare Sarkar, the flagship outreach program of the government will focus on the registration of migrant workers. Please note that a significant number of labourers from states like Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh come to this state for work,” said Islam.
According to a recent RBI study, West Bengal accounted for only 1% of the total bank-assisted investment proposals made during the year 2022-23. The total invested capital of Rs 8.38 lakh crore ($1.20 billion) between FY2016 and FY2020 in West Bengal is significantly lower than Gujarat (Rs 42.49 lakh crore) ($6.13 billion), Maharashtra (Rs 28.18 lakh crore) ($4.06 billion), Tamil Nadu (Rs 20.29 lakh crore) ($2.92 billion), Odisha (Rs 17.62 lakh crore) ($2.54 billion), or Andhra Pradesh (Rs 12.19 lakh crore) ($1.75 billion). The state also has fewer number factories, considering its high population density.
Bygone electoral promises
My co-passengers had varying levels of education and many had graduated school and college.
One Bijay Roy says he realised soon after finishing his Bachelor of Commerce that jobs were few.
“Local political leaders were selling government jobs for exorbitant sums, which I couldn’t afford. That’s when I decided to reach out directly to a contractor. Now, I work two jobs – a full-time one and a night shift as a technician. I earn around Rs 40,000 ($480) a month and send Rs 25,000 ($300) back home. I’ll keep doing this as long as I can. If not, tell me, what other options do I have?” Roy asks.
A ticket to this train was a ticket to a better and brighter future for many of its travellers.
A few passengers speak up. “During elections, the political parties come calling, offering free transportation and daily wages just for attending their rallies. They disappear after the elections are over, and no one remembers us,” is the summary of what many say.
Throughout the journey, passengers are glued to their phones, offering reassurance to their families and pledging to keep them updated once they arrive at their destination. A ticket to this train was a ticket to a better and brighter future for many of its travellers.
As the night wears on, passengers become friends. “Don’t finish all the food at once, we still have a day or three to sit through,” laughs one.
*Translated from the Bengali original by Aparna Bhattacharya, who also contributed inputs to the report.
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