By Balwant Singh Mehta, I. C. Awasthi, Mashkoor Ahmad and Arjun Kumar
With close to 1,00,000 COVID-19 cases, India has entered its eighth week of lockdown. This lockdown 4.0 will remain in force till May 31. Ever since the announcement of the first national lockdown on March 24, the shutdown of transport and sealing of states/districts has created a humanitarian crisis in many states for panic-stricken migrant workers, students, and those between travels and transit.
There have been some relaxations in the rules since lockdown 3.0, and finding ways to tackle the crisis has taken the centre-stage, with many pertinent viewpoints, evidences, experiences and learnings.
Amid a lack of responsive mobility option, despair, treatment alike commodity and inferior citizens and serious concerns of being infected, and the craving to be in the comforts of their homes, several million migrant workers and families, begun to tread on foot. With no government support of travel, their journey has often been several hundred miles following highways and railway tracks, often hungry and relentlessly tired. This has turned into the great human tragedy.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, also raised her concern and said in a statement that she was distressed by the plight of the informal migrant workers affected by the lockdown, many of whom were, in effect, forced to leave the cities where they worked. However, she hailed the government efforts to address the crisis by providing proper shelter and food to these migrants, who were returning to their native places and were actually victims of pandemic.
This kind of chaos finds an eerie similarity during the time of India-Pakistan partition in 1947, when millions of people from both sides were garrote at borders, leading to exceptionally brutal and terrible miseries.
The Supreme Court also ordered all concerned, that is the state government, public authorities and citizens, to comply with directives, advisory and orders issued by the central government in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety. The court directed that the migrant labourers should be dealt with ‘in a humane manner’ and that ‘trained counsellors, community leaders and volunteers must be engaged along with the police to supervise the welfare activities of migrants’.
The reverse movement of thousands of migrants is an ongoing challenge before the governments—centre, state and local. In order to give relief to all of them and prevent infection from spreading, around 40,000 relief camps and shelters have been set up all over the country in which over 14 lakh stranded migrant workers and other needy people are provided relief (April 2020).
Out of this, more than 80% of the relief camps have been set up by states, while the rest are by NGOs. Also, over 26,000 food camps have been set up in which more than 1 crore people have been provided food. Over 16.5 lakh workers are being provided with food and relief by their employers and industries.
The hotspot of these relief shelters and camps are in the cities of Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, etc. The southern states are handling the situation relatively well as compared to the capital, Delhi, and western states.
The statement “saving people lives is more important than economy” has changed over the period; now, economy has become equally important.
As Delhi’s chief minister Kejriwal said on May 4, “We will have to adapt and be ready to live with coronavirus. When all economic activities are shut and revenue generation has stopped, how do we give salaries? How do we run the government?” Prime Minister Narendra Modi also conveyed to chief ministers on April 27 that the country will have to give importance to the economy with continued fight against the novel coronavirus.
However, the people who are called the ‘drivers’ of economic activities are wandering around helplessly and haplessly.
A large number of migrants have already reached their villages, and millions of others are currently in shelter homes. Many who decided to stay back in cities are desperately waiting for the end of the lockdown period to move back to their native places.
This time, many labourers will not come back due to the shock and uncertainty, which means that most of small and medium-sized companies/factories and other such businesses may face the heat once the lockdown period is over. Their production and profits will suffer due to a shortage of labour or contract skilled workers. Further, their wage bill will also rise due to higher payments to retain the limited available labour-force.
Households too would find it tough to run their daily work without the helpers/drivers/maids, etc. Shortage of workers poses a challenge to restart the economy.
Migrant workers and families are now desperately leaving for their native places.
Despite repeated assurances from the central and state governments, millions of migrants are desperate to return from cities with double threats to life and livelihood by COVID-19. They are hurt by the fact that cities, the destination places, are treating them badly, and most of them have lost their trust in the government. Instead, they hope to make ends meet in their
However, the early signs of unexpected surge in unemployment rates (Bihar: 47%; Jharkhand: 47%; UP: 22%) at the native places of migrants indicate a threatening picture ahead.
The migrants are not only the economic driver of destinations places but also play a vital role in development and growth of industries, businesses, people and many others. Of course, the state governments are taking care of these migrants at present, but the companies, businessmen, contractors and other highly paid service workers hardly come forward to help these migrants during their hard time.
In this context, the Telangana CM K. Chandrashekhar Rao was the first person who went all out to prevent the exodus of migrant labourers and assured all help to them. He announced in Hindi, the language most of the migrant workers understand, “You are the key drivers of our state economy; we will make all the arrangement and provide you shelter, food and daily cash of ₹500 during the lockdown period and urge you to stay back.”
However, similar statements also came from others, such as CMs of Delhi, Haryana, UP and Maharashtra and many others, with marginal or no implementation and reach. Prime Minister Modi has also realized the tragedy of migrants’ and apologized in Mann Ki Baat, but no industrialist, business or business association has made such a gesture.
In India, the level of urbanization has increased manifolds (about one-third population live in urban areas in 2011 as per Census), which resulted in demographic explosion and poverty-induced rural-urban migration. A large number of people from rural and backward areas have started to migrate to cities and metropolitan regions as well as developed states for better livelihood opportunities and higher standard of living.
Moreover, the movement of internal labour and migration in India, in terms of inter-region has been largely from: eastern to western regions in the country; rural to urban centres—small, medium, big, mega/metro; towards urban centres within district/nearby regions; and urban to urban (among various class sizes); urban to rural; and rural to rural.
In recent times, the purpose and tenure has been subject to changing dynamics, as well as improvements in infrastructure, technology and service delivery.
This is reflected in rising number of inter-state migrants that increased from 42.3 million in 2001 to 56.3 million in 2011. From the total inter-state migrants, one-third (30.3%, i.e. 17.1 million) migrated for economic purposes. The Economic Survey 2017 further estimated that at least 9 million people migrate between states annually within the country with 33% of them for economic purposes.
If this trend continues, the inter-state migrants are estimated approximately around 146 million at present, with 47 million being migrant workers. Over 90% of the migrants are estimated to be male, and the top-source places are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (eastern India states), while the top destinations places for migration are Delhi and Mumbai (metropolitan regions), and western and southern India.
It is well documented that the migrant workers, engaged in non-high skilled occupation and having less technical education and skills, remain the most vulnerable groups, while being the real builders and maintainers of the cities. These city makers are primarily engaged in casual wage jobs in the informal sector—as construction workers, street vendors, restaurant employees, delivery persons, rickshaw drivers, and so on.
The impact on their lives is precarious as they are dependent on day-to-day work for earnings without any significant social assistance and protection in the event of abrupt cancellations that have happened with the lockdown.
Unfortunately, our cities look cruel to migrants who run the urban life with their hard work, and the state governments’ response for their well-being (or even their count, registry or reach) portray negligence.
Most of the migrants come alone to destinations and visit their native places several times a year. They remain connected with their family and deeply rooted with their native places. It is no wonder then that most of the migrants at the time of national lockdown are eager to return to their native places.
In 2011, around 447 million (37% of the total population, including immigrants) have been identified as migrants by place of birth. Across gender, females constituted around 70% of this figure. There has been an increase of about 140 million migrants between 2001 and 2011.
Majority of the migrants moved short distances, i.e. within their district of birth. Intra-district migrants (those who moved within their district of birth) comprised almost 60%, followed by inter-district migrants (27%) who moved from one district to another within the state of their birth. While about 12.6% migrants moved across state boundaries. International in-migrants comprised only 1.2% of all the migrants by place of birth in 2011 as compared to 2.0% in 2001.
The proportions of various types of migrants were significantly different in rural and urban areas. Inter-state migrants registered a higher proportion in urban areas as compared to the rural areas. Overall, though ratio of females was higher because of marriage migration, among the inter-state migrants in urban areas, the share of male migrants was marginally higher than female migrants.
In 2011, Maharashtra, with about 9.8 million migrants, was the largest home of inter-state migrants, followed by National Capital Region of Delhi (6.4 million) and Uttar Pradesh (4.0 million) in 2011. Uttar Pradesh, though primarily an out-migrating state, has also emerged as the third-largest destination for inter-state migrants.
During 2001–2011, on the basis of place of last residence, about 134 million people have been identified as internal migrants. Of these, 47.3% migrants moved from rural to rural areas. On the other hand, rural to urban and urban to urban migration streams each comprised about 22% of the total migrants. While urban to rural migration stream only accounted 8.5% migrants during the last decade.
During this period, north Indian states have experienced net out-migration. Uttar Pradesh—the most populated state of India, and Bihar—the most densely populated state and one of the poorest states of India, have emerged as highly out-migrating states. Uttar Pradesh experienced a net loss of 3.4 million people as 1.4 million people in-migrated while 4.8 million people out-migrated from the state during the last decade. Another important state experiencing net out-migration includes Bihar (with a net loss of 2.7 million people) during 2001–2011.
Other out-migrating states are Rajasthan, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. Among south Indian states, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu recorded a negative net migration. Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi have come up as favorite destinations for people from different states of the country.
During 2001–2011, about 3.6 million people entered Maharashtra while only 1.2 million people out-migrated, thereby indicating a net in-migration of 2.4 million people. In all, 15 states have recorded positive net in-migration while 13 states of the country recorded negative net out-migration. Interestingly, all the Union Territories have experienced a positive net in-migration during 2001–2011.
Remarkable differences have been found for reasons of migration across gender. During the period, the most significant reason for migration among males was work/employment (31.4%), among females, it was marriage (60.3 %). Among the inter-state migrants, 51% males migrated for work/employment as compared to 6.1% among females. Among male migrants, 5% migrated for education as compared to 1.7% among females.
There are several estimates floating around about the number of migrants who are leaving the destination (mostly urban) places due to absence of any updated information. Some estimates are:
The above estimates are only indicative; the visible reports of current registration by migrants to return home clearly reflect their desperation. About two million have registered in UP (one million returned as well), over 6,00,000 in Jharkhand, and about 1 million in Bihar for coming home. On the other hand, 2 million migrants registered to go home from Gujarat, 644 thousand from Punjab, 225 thousand from Telangana, and over 146 thousand from Haryana.
The registered data reveals that over three-fourth of the registered migrants are either from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. The registration process is still on, and more will register to return to home.
Their desperation to go home can be seen that even after announcement of various measures, including assurance of essentials and retaining their livelihood by opening the economic activities, they are not ready to stay anymore. Many of them do not have proof of domicile in the places they work and cannot get a ration card, and thus, remain out of the ambit of the public distribution system.
More than a month of nationwide lockdown has dried up the sources of livelihood for migrant workers in different parts of the country. The Union Home Ministry has passed an order allowing inter-state movement of these workers.
Even as shelter homes and relief camps were set up to support the millions of migrants who were stranded across the country, many of them now did manage to return to their villages and others are waiting to go. By all accounts, most of them have spent the past two months in overcrowded shelters arranged by governments, civil society groups or employers.
Most are upset over the treatment they received from their employers and know that cities still have not accepted them. Even after so many years of contribution in the progress of destination places, the governments have not provided them any assistance and broken their trust. They live in rented houses in slums and informal settlements, construction sites, pavements without proper supplies of water, sanitation facilities and electricity.
In rural areas or at origin places, they can access government welfare schemes such as MGNREGS, PM Kisan Yojana, ration from Public Distribution System, and many others. However, in absence of documents or IDs in cities or urban areas, they cannot access such government welfare schemes. This is one important lesson they learnt during this pandemic.
Hence, they are desperate to return to their native places. The relief camps set up for them have merely delayed the inevitable. Now, the central government and many state governments have ensured the safe return of migrants to their home. Despite industry concerns, a number of states refused to stop the special trains and buses arranged for this purpose; however, migrant workers need to fill in registration forms to travel back by special trains, which many of them find difficult. So, many still prefer to travel on-foot or by cycle.
Migrant workers are considered to be the backbone of economic activities in urban centres across India, and the industry people and employers are realizing this for the first time. The fact remains that activities in their industries will not see a recovery without the migrant labourers. Most relatively-developed or industrialized states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and Karnataka would face a labour crisis due to reverse migration, leading to concerns over the looming economic crisis. There are questions on what will happen to small- and medium-sized industries and other economic activities that are fully dependent upon these labourers.
It is true that these migrants are not only an economic agent at destination places, but also at their origin places by sending huge amounts of money as remittances to their families. Therefore, the economy of migrant’s home states will also be affected badly by this reverse migration on four counts:
Thus, businesses and other industrial bodies have already started putting pressure on the governments to stem the reverse migration.
Migrant workers are often considered nowhere citizen and denied their entitlements. They form the poorest and the most disadvantaged sections of the society. This vulnerable lot is invisible and mostly neglected in policy discourse. The current pandemic witnessed their widespread misery and untold sufferings.
The most important question would be finding a job or means of livelihood for returning migrants. States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are worst hit by the reverse migration. If the migrants decide to stay back at the origin for a longer period, it will pose a huge challenge to the home and destination state governments as well as the economy.
Some of the following short-term and long-term policy suggestions are given for the betterment of migrants, who should not be treated as ‘outsiders’ but as an ‘economic agents’:
1. The central and state governments should work in synchronization to protect the interests of both migrant workers and the employers. After the lifting of lockdown, the challenge is to bring back the migrants to restart economic activities in urban areas. They should be provided dignified jobs with assurance of social security and other facilities, such as housing and safe environment with provision of assistance for returning them to their native places in times of crises.
2. A large number of inter-state migrants used to migrate to the cities by leaving their families at the place of origin, and frequently visited them and also sent money. In such cases, the documentation or identification proofs of a migrant could be different from the destination state or where they work. However, these documents (such as ration card and Aadhar) are crucial for receiving social security benefits.
In this connection, there is an urgent need to form universal documents (applicable to all states) or ensure portability of benefits across the country such as Public Distribution Systems, MGNREGA, health insurance and other benefits. The Supreme Court has already urged the government for ‘one nation, one ration card’ scheme during lockdown. Such a permanent solution is need of the hour.
3. There is an urgent need to maintain a dynamic registry for the migrants to prepare a database, supplemented with their skill-sets and job requirement details for greater usage. This would ensure that appropriate policy measures can be taken for the welfare of migrants in the times of pandemics, like the current one.
The state can employ the unskilled returning migrants to some extent under the government’s MGNREGA scheme, and generate suitable employment for skilled workers to retain the return of migrants in the long run. These registries need to be instituted using latest digital technologies and innovations, along with a dynamic unemployment registry to provide direct economic (universal basic income), health (universal coverage), and other necessary contingency protection and support in an integrated ecosystem.
5. According to the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (ISMW) Act 1979, an inter-state migrant worker is any person who is recruited by or through licensed contractors. However, most of the migrant workers are not recruited through licensed contractors; so a huge number of migrants are excluded from getting the benefit of ISMW act. This act is only applicable to establishments which have five or more inter-state migrant workers or employees. The current crisis has exposed the inadequacy of this act. There is a need to modify the existing ISMW act for the welfare of inter-state migrants.
6. Similarly, under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, the state governments have funds collected in the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board. However, the list of the workers and the usage of the fund under the board have serious impediments which needs to be improved to make it impactful.
7. While the Census is held decennially, the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) is used to fill the gap with surveys on employment and migration every five years. The Census does provide the aggregated numbers with limited qualitative dimensions. The last NSSO survey on internal migration and outmigration was held in 2007–08. Hence, it is an opportune time for a comprehensive plan to address the data lags.
8. Certainly, the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) Scheme of Shelters for Urban Homeless (SUH) has not been able to demonstrate its commitment of ‘Antyodaya’ for the urban and shelter poor. In fact, DAY-NULM which could have come to the rescue of these workers, itself suffers from several inherent challenges.
For instance, for the last 18 months, the Government has been mulling over the idea of outsourcing the upkeep of the mission to corporates and philanthropic institutions. This implicit failure of the Government that led to the generation of such an idea is further amplified by hiring big private consultants as project monitoring units, having a “corporate-style target achievement attitude”.
Further, the inconsiderate approach of the authorities during times of economic slowdown, when the migrant workers are the hardest hit, is evident from the meagre increase in the budgetary allocation for DAY-NULM vis-à-vis the flagship schemes of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). It was ₹750 crore (in 2019–20), and was raised by only 6% to ₹795 crore in 2020–21.
There is also a need for an urgent action task force (in short term) and homeless policy (in medium term) in all the states to tackle these issues in a more planned manner in the future. This includes expanding the SUH component of DDU-NULM to meet decent space and shelter requirements, along with catering to the shelter needs of women, children, elderly, persons with disabilities through community kitchens; medical help; in-kind assistance through public distribution systems, water, toilets, etc.
9. The innovative approach in Chapter 11 of the Economic Survey 2019–20, “Thalinomics: The Economics of a Plate of Food in India”, that attempts to quantify what a common person pays for a thali (platter) across India, deserves special mention. It estimates that the all-India price of a decent vegetarian and non-vegetarian meal (constructed using the dietary guidelines by National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, for Indians) as little under ₹25 and ₹40, respectively.
Therefore, in the current health emergency, the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) package should be expanded to ensure a balanced diet and dignified food assistance is provided to the poor.
Understandably, to provide the minimum assistance to achieve these norms for balanced diet and sundry expenses, direct cash transfer of around ₹2000 per person per month (that is a dollar a day) should also be implemented as an option in addition to the PDS system, especially given the failure of the food distribution system and delivery capacity as observed in the past few months during the crisis.
10. Given the importance of prevention of spread of the coronavirus, contact tracing, surveillance, e-passes and other such usage of Aarogya Setu app, harnessing the technology, an android phone supporting the app should be made available to each citizen, especially to the migrants who are at more risk. Graded approach can be taken for ensuring the availability based upon the affordability of Individuals and families.
The Prime Minister announced a special economic and comprehensive package of ₹20 lakh crore on May 12, 2020. As part of the economic measures “Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan” (Self Reliant India Campaign), the Finance Minister announced many short- and long-term measures for supporting the poor, including migrant workers. Along with this, some of the other latest announcements pertaining to migrant workers are:
In retrospect, the national lockdown 3.0 period may offer many lessons to employers, workers and governments. For migrants, distance matters, and the lockdown has given a new lesson that could lead to a significant reduction in long-distance migration, especially without appropriate incentives and adhering to safety norms.
The number of migrants, who fled the big cities, may now prefer to work in their marginal farms or find work in nearby towns. It could deprive many manufacturing units and business centers in Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, Tripura and Gurugram, etc. for a long period of time, and the businesses and economy are likely to face a recession, if not depression.
In this process, the sources states will also have the burden of rising labour force with more unemployed or underemployed people. They need to create more job opportunity in rural areas, particularly in non-farm activities with a gainful employment to those migrants, who do not want to go back to the cities and rely on their day-to-day labour for earning their livelihood and make a decent living.
Undeniably, this is an unprecedented situation, and the ways and means to tackle the same have to be sensitive, responsive, quick and above all, caring. In the post-COVID-19 situation, bringing back the confidence and trust of the migrant workers, over the course of time, by the governments and market stakeholders, will be one of the most important foundation stepping stone towards the envisaged vision of New India.
The article was first published here.