A few days ago, I went for grocery shopping at my regular local shop and to my surprise, I saw Kripal Bhai. He was there in his usual self, managing the customers, telling them the right price without even looking at the packets and arranging the stuff the way exactly it should be. He was also one of those millions of migrants who had left the city to go back to his hometown when the pandemic had hit. He went back due to fear of loss of job and not being able to afford the city life. Now he is back and I could see a sigh of relief in the eyes of the owners.
It is said that the worst thing in life is ending up alone. It is not. The worst thing in life is being ignored in spite of having people around. And such was the case with millions of migrant workers until March 2020.
In March, when one of the deadliest viruses was slowly seeping in different areas of India, what came into the spotlight was this ignored population. Suddenly it was there, in front of our eyes. We witnessed their plight when they were rendered penniless and stranded in the midst of an already unsolvable crisis. The thing to take note of is that why these migrants suddenly became so important when their miseries were being overlooked till now?
Migrant labourers are basically the workforce of our country which has been present all along but invisible. They are overlooked, taken for granted, ignored and are kilometres away from the outermost periphery of the society. They exist when we need them and then they don’t. Then why suddenly, overnight, these entities became so relevant to us? Why their miseries were screamingly showcased to the entire world? Was it because it was suddenly realized that who would now save the already sinking economy of this country?
In a press conference conducted by the Government, it was mentioned that according to the last census report there are more than 4 crore migrant workers in India. And, in March 2020, what the entire world witnessed was the mass exodus of these 4 crore migrants post the 21-day lockdown announcement by the Government. These workers from farms, factories, households, construction sites, transportation, including others, came into the nationwide focus for wanting to go back to their homes.
Thousands of workers swarmed the city bus stations, train stations and in a helpless desperate situation, many resorted to the strength in their feet. They tried walking large distances facing all kinds of hardships including deaths on their way. Amidst, all this one prominent question that kept lurking around was when are they coming back? Who will now work for us?
The large scale reverse migration that India witnessed has put a lot of stress on businesses across various sectors. The economy has been hit hard. And now that the country is gradually opening up, a lot of workers are being brought back by various authorities to complete unfinished projects. According to recent data by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, thousands of workers have been brought back by engineering firms to complete the metro projects.
A lot of business owners and project managers are sponsoring the return of the workforce and facilitating their quarantine needs. While a lot of these workers are coming back because of their own helplessness, the larger need is to get them back as the dependency on them is huge to resume businesses.
The lack of self-sufficiency in the villages and small towns reflects a long-standing and equally problematic concept of Bharat-India divide. The factors which are prompting the migrants to return to the city still remain the same which is a perfect reflection of this divide. While there are a lot of economic development packages rolled out by the government since so many years, still, the difference in income disparity and the lack of basic facilities and infrastructure is quite prominent.
While the resumption of businesses is crucial to the economic development of the country, the important thing will be to not ignore and overlook this huge population which is the ground force of driving this economy. The return of the migrants will also lead to a larger number of people falling ill, and there should be efficient measures to cope up with that. Providing this population with what it needs will be extremely crucial to unlocking India’s full potential.
Our collective aim should be to improve the lives of people like Kripal bhai, so that never again he or anyone else has to leave if a crisis befalls us!