Coedited by Dr. Prabir Chatterjee, (Former Executive Director of State Health and Resource Centre)

Migration is a phenomenon which has existed among us very loudly and silently over centuries. St. Thomas (one of the twelve disciples of Jesus) migrated from Roman province of Judea in A.D. 52 and preached the gospel for about two decades before he was martyred at famous St. Thomas Mount. (1). Persian people were one of the major ethnic groups, who accompanied the ethnic Turco-Mongol ruling elite of the Mughal Empire after its invasion of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan. Throughout the Mughal Empire, a number of ethnic Persian technocrats, bureaucrats, traders, scientists, architects, teachers, poets, artists, theologians and Sufis migrated and settled in different parts of the Indian Subcontinent.

British migrated not only for trade and rule but like the Arabs earlier brought migrants as slaves from Africa, ‘Siddi tribe ’ that resides in Karnataka and Gujarat are the living evidence, and they transported many from the land of Hind to African nations. Harris (1971) provides an historical survey of the eastward dispersal of slaves from Southeast Africa to places like India.(2). Hamilton (1990) argues that Siddis in South India are a significant social group whose histories, experiences, cultures, and expressions are integral to the African Diaspora and thus, help better understand the dynamics of dispersed peoples. More recent focused scholarship argues that although Siddis are numerically a minority, their historic presence in India for over five hundred years, as well as their self-perception, and how the broader Indian society relates to them, make them a distinct Bantu/Indian. (3).

On the other hand, many Indians in South Africa are descendants of migrants from colonial India (South Asia) during late 19th-century through early 20th-century. At times Indians were subsumed in the broader geographical category “Asians”. (4). Portuguese brought many Africans as slaves to their colonies in India, especially in Konkan coast between about 1530 and 1740.

There are many such pieces of evidence of live human beings transported from one coast to another, within and beyond borders. Sometimes one acted as the host and at other times the subjects of slavery in another land.

Many terms and identities have changed since then. Hind and Africa became India and South Africa. Slavery was abolished so many new terms evolved over a period of time such as slaves, bonded labour, migrants and immigrants, trafficking. The horrible core fact that remains the same – it was and is ‘Slavery’ and it may continue.

Though we have modernized it by making it more local and sprinkled a few new acts, believing in rights, but actually living in fantasy of social security and rights. In a background paper by Covid Advocacy Group (COVID-19 Its impact on Unorganised Workers- Informal and Unorganised Workers) the authors state that the solution could be effective execution of the labour welfare legislations in all sectors starting from Payment of Wages Act 1936, Minimum Wages Act 1948, Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 1976, InterState Migrants Workmen’s Act 1979, Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996,
Food Security Act 2009, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA), Forest Rights Act 2006, Disaster Mitigation Act 2005, Right to Education Act 2009, Protection of Human Rights Act 1993, The Factories Act, 1948 and Plantation Labour Act 1951, Child Labour Prohibition Act 1986,
Right to Information Act 2005, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation & Resettlement Act 2013, The Motor Transport Workers Act 1961, and The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act 1966,

The child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act 2016 and The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 both define a child as a person who has not completed fourteen years of age. The Merchant Shipping Act 1958 and Apprentices Act 1961 don’t define a child, but in provisions of the act state that a child below fourteen is not permitted to work in occupations of the act. The Mines Act, 1952 is the only labour related act that defines adult as person who has completed eighteen years of age (hence a child is a person who has not completed eighteen years of age).

Tribal Forest Rights Act 2005 for Tribals and Forest Dwellers, Social Security Act 2008 for the labours in the informal sector have also emerged in last decade. The good intentions of the acts and laws don’t deny the welfare and people’s development but certainly doesn’t release them out of the bondage of slavery. Many would argue that these laws and acts are not implemented and this gives the reason for the unpopularity of the acts at implementation level.

In a discussion with Rajni Soren, Advocate at Chhattisgarh High Court, Bilaspur she said, ‘ Labour Laws a have lot of provisions but implementation of the acts is one of the major problem for the acts being not utilized for the people they are meant for.’

She further said that people need to be united to raise their voices in a unified way, which is through unions and forums to make the acts more effective. Ms. Soren also raised the concern for the social security of the labours in the informal sector which is around more than ninety percent (90%). She acknowledged that the system needs to emphasise and strengthen the existing Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008. She strongly feels that the authorities need to play a vital role in their will to strengthen ‘The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008.’

If we try to understand why these laws and acts are not practised or implemented then we need to look at the grass root level, at that population for which these are created and expected to be implemented. Let us try to see the world, laws and acts through their eyes. I asked several people
including the tribals about the laws and rules that have been made for them for their wages, rights and welfare and none were able to mention the correct wage. Women themselves said we get different (less) wage because we cannot work like men though we work for the same number of hours for road construction.

I asked them do they ever try to negotiate for wages, their answers are similar to this ‘Bahot baar bola hai, pata nahi kyu, kya hota hai?’ (Several times but do not know why, what happens?). I asked them do they know that they have Minimum Wages Act, their answer is ‘Naahi, Padbe nahi kiya’ , (No, I didn’t study). These conversations all across the states from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Assam, Bengal, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, are very similar to each other with dialect differences.

My experience of the field for almost a decade now suggests me that the Knowledge (Know) , Skill (How ) and Will (Claim) are the key components of advocacy.

The lack of knowledge is indicated by the social fact that ‘The Mines Act 1952’ was last revised in 1982, The Merchant Shipping Act 1958 not revised since it has been created. We can conclude that for years these acts have not been revised.

Why these acts are not revised, it is a matter for evaluation. With speed that we have considered and constructed the sustainable development goals, they are outdated. No doubt we therefore fail to eradicate many promises by 2030. Tuberculosis, Gender equality would be few of them for sure.

Secondly, even though people may somehow manage to get the knowledge of the acts and laws, they fail to put it in black and white not because they are lazy and poor but because the system makes them disabled as they do not have the skills to demand their rights in the formats and the language. Writing application, getting them signed formalities of Aadhar card, ration
card, job card. They need skills.

Thirdly, the most sensitive fact personally is,- the identity, respect and dignity of the labour, poor, women, tribal, dalit, children have been crushed for ages and still doing that by making them walk for thousands of kilometres with blisters and heat, making them eat the dead body of a dog died in the road accident, make them pull the bull cart to carry the family, die on the rail tracks with their breads drying alongside, making around twenty women deliver in trains and on road sides, made them carry the live child in their lap to die, make the children walk with heavy loads on their heads or pulled on the trolley bag. They are neither allowed to live with respect and dignity nor allowed to die with dignity. While alive their wages were denied, in death a dignified funeral. These laws and acts still exist to protect them? They have been denied the right to go to their homes. They need permission to cross the boundaries of their own. What can be more inhuman than this?

We are still slaves to the colonial attitude which can never leave us. In fact we have made it into law. This ‘Colonial attitude’ is a pandemic which will never end and surprisingly we all have learnt to live with this because we have been living in this and will always will.

Strengthening the roots (knowledge, skill and building the will) by nourishing them gives good fruit. It brings the transformation within, creates ownership and demand accountability. I will be addressing this in my next article).


  2. Harris, J. E. (1971). The African Presence in Asia: Consequences of the East African Slave Trade.
  3. Obeng, P. (2007). Shaping Membership, Defining Nation: The Cultural Politics of African Indians in South India, p. xiii.
  4. Noble, Kenneth B. (22 April 1994). “Fearing Domination by Blacks, Indians of South Africa Switch Loyalties”. The New York Times. Retrieved 5 May 2010.
  5. Krishnan, Stanley, Sukanya, Sathish et al . COVID-19 Its impact on Unorganised Workers- Informal and Unorganised Workers- Background Paper (Ninth Edition 12th May 2020). COVID-19 ADVOCACY GROUP. Received by email from William Stanley on 13 May 2020.