A very visible fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reverse migration, which could end up being hard to reconcile with, given the importance of migrant workers to the Indian economy. Following the nationwide lockdown, all commercial establishments have been closed and this has resulted in joblessness and escaping from cities to their hometowns or villages by tens of thousands of migrant workers.
Of the images that haunt me, these are particularly heart-rending — one, that of the little girl who died on the way walking back to her home with her father.
Post COVID-19 lockdowns in India, thousands of daily wage labourers belonging to the unorganised sector have been leaving big cities in droves. They have no other alternative but to return to their villages though their future there is also bleak. Having no public means of transport, many have left on foot to remote places like UP, Bihar, and West Bengal from Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, etc. Some have taken rickshaws to reach their destinations.
Seasonal migration for work is a pervasive reality in rural India. An overwhelming 140 million people are estimated to migrate from rural areas to urban labour markets, industries and farms. Migration has become essential for people from regions that face frequent shortages of rainfall or suffer floods, or where population densities are high in relation to land.
Devoid of critical skills, information and bargaining power, migrant workers often get caught in exploitative labour arrangements that forces them to work in low-end, low-value, hazardous work, and informal market jobs in key sectors in urban destinations, such as construction, hotel, textile, manufacturing, transportation, services, domestic work etc. They form the largest part of India’s vast unorganised work sector.
The cities were built on the hard labour and exploitation of migrant workers, but they never entered the consciousness of the architects; instead, they are considered part of the problem in cities. The political class ignores them because they don’t count as votes, especially in the case of inter-state migrants. Due to their mobile nature, they don’t find any place in the manifestos of trade unions. They spend their whole day on worksites and silently sneak into perilous shelters at night, without the cities even noticing them.
The sudden displacement of migrant labour would have far-reaching impact on the Indian economy and states should be prepared to deal with the consequences of behavioural changes forced by the lockdown. There has to be a holistic approach for the labourers and stress should be given on the rural economy else the economy is going to sink.
Prime Minister Modi has announced special economic package of ₹20 lakh crore ($266 billion) this evening for making India self reliant — Atma-Nirbhar Bharat. This is the time to understand that self-sufficiency is the key and agriculture is its base, so it is very important to return to roots and start working from there. In the meanwhile, both the central and state governments should make some immediate arrangements for food, safety and transport arrangements for these people walking back to their homes. NGOs may be involved and some bhandaras (community kitchens) may be arranged for them.