Desired labour but undesired influx: Sikkim’s tryst with irony

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Migration, a much politicised and loathed terminology today was once a need of the hour. Throughout the history of Sikkim, the tiny Himalayan state enjoying a relatively higher quality of life and bounty of nature, has attracted people from many directions, who have subsequently settled and created the rich Sikkimese mosaic of today.

While this may have contributed to the overall demographics of the Himalayan state through the centuries, the same migration has been a cause of concern among the local populace today, owning to rapid boom in the rate of influx.

Sikkim is now enjoying the democratic dividend owning to relative good governance and Delhi’s economic and constitutional cover. This has taken out maximum Sikkimese out of poverty, resulting in drastic increase in quality of life and life expectancy. This has created an ecosystem in Sikkimese economy which can not only sustain its own but also those in need. This tiny state now has a large number of migrant labourers and helpers working in various sectors including industries, hospitality, service and in households.

While there is an advisory to register household helpers with the area police station, for migrant labourers the lack of awareness on labour laws or an absence of it has been of major concern. The labourers under the heinous labour contract system in Sikkim has been a subject of much anguish and concern for the workers who are often subjected to unilateral action by those who hire them without keeping in mind their grievances.

Sun Maya Lohar, a migrant worker from neighbouring Darjeeling district, West Bengal, is one of the many who arrives in Sikkim every year to work in road construction. She and her group of friends have been doing this job for many years. Like many, she is unaware of basic laws governing labour, and is completely subservient to the contractor who hires her in a menial wage, which takes many days of hard labour to fructify. Health remains a concern for this group with often difficult and long work timings along with an equally difficult terrain. By the time their stipulated working dates are over, their health is usually at its worst.

Complete dismantling of labour contract system is now being seen as the only option for activists to shed some light into a complete overhaul of the present system, under which, migrant labourers can find a sense of justice and seek redressal of their problems.

It must be realised that migration happens in a region which has a lot of opportunities. Sikkim is rising and in the years to come, the state is slated to see an accelerated growth in its economy coupled with declining fertility rate of the Sikkimese. Influx has the potential to be the next big political issue in the future, as there won’t be enough work force to drive the economic engine with influx as the only option.

The need to seriously rejig in labour policy in tandem with human rights with urgency is the need of the hour for a small state like Sikkim, which is environmentally fragile and economically vulnerable. A blanket economic and social protection for the labourers along with protection of the local concern is of primary importance for stakeholders to solve.

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