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Unfriendly Cities: Why Migrants Were Forced To Reverse Migrate During Lockdown

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Migrant workers have been assured multiple times that an economic lockdown will not be imposed, and yet, photographs have started to emerge of reverse migration. Given this context, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Counterview and Working People Charter organised a panel discussion on ‘Reverse Migration amidst the Second Wave of Coronavirus Pandemic: Challenges and Solutions’.

The esteemed panel was composed of the Chair Prof Arun Kumar, Malcolm S Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and Retd. Professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Professor Irudaya Rajan, the second panellist, is the Chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMAD) and Professor at Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Kerala. The third panellist was Ms Akriti Bhatia, founder of People’s Association In Grassroots Action and Movement (PAIGAM).

The moderator for the event Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla and Senior Visiting Fellow, IMPRI , set the tone for the lecture by quoting Mr Mahesh Vyas:

“Tragedy seems to be unfolding again as Covid inflictions have risen, Vaccines have run into shortages, governments have started implementing smaller lockdowns and are speaking of large lockdowns. As result sections of labour are suspicious of their livelihoods again. Migrant labour is as vulnerable for livelihood as it was a year ago.”

Setting The Context

He pointed out that migrant livelihoods are in danger yet again. This jeopardises the 30 years of the Lassiez-Faire planning system. The key question remains: ‘What kind of cities are we building?’. Our civilisations have been civilisations of migrants. At this time, it seems as though all city resilience indices have failed. Surat, the city that was seen as a model for urbanisation, could not account for 24 hours for its migrant populations. Indian cities are hubs for inequality, the result of flawed planning.

“We will live on roti and salt, but we will not come back.” — Tikender Singh Panwar, re-quoting migrants

Researchers at IMPRI located for the audience the context of the problem by an eagle eye’s view of the context of migration in the country and linking it with the rising Covid-19 cases. The presentation began with explicating the current caseload in the country, the details of myriad forms of lockdowns, and the site of the mass reverse exodus of migrants. Following these, details of the glaring absence of data on migrants during the pandemic were explicated.

They compiled a set of social security schemes for the migrants in the first lockdown and the response of government policies so far. The small introduction was wrapped up by speaking of a welfare approach that located for migrants human dignity by first understanding the quantum of the concern. Then ensuring the health, safety, nutrition and livelihood of this forgotten population of cities.

Two-thirds of the migrant population lost employment and the earnings in the informal sector dropped by half.

Lockdown Vs Livelihood

Prof Arun Kumar pointed out that the lockdown doesn’t reduce the disease but only prevents people’s movement. This means that the disease remains, but considering that Covid is a communicable disease, lockdowns prevents the spread of the same. A lockdown then becomes a means to mitigate national disasters. The peak of the disease does not surpass the availability of health infrastructure in the country.

India is the worst-hit economy in the world, and it is because of the large unorganised sector. This unorganised sector was migrating back from urban to rural areas. There is a need to address the root cause of the problem. The answers lie in understanding where did planning fault first in-migration from rural to urban and then visa versa due to the lockdown.

The findings of the Covid-19 Livelihood Survey by Azim Premji University are based on a survey of nearly 5,000 self-employed, casual and regular wage workers across 12 states of India, conducted between April 13 and May 23 in 2020 in collaboration with civil society organisations. Two-thirds of the migrant population had lost employment and the earnings in the informal sector dropped by half. Livelihoods were not just under strain they vanished with the study locating 80% of migrants not having enough income to sustain meals for a week.

Reason For Migration

Large migrant populations are a direct result of a top-down policy-making approach. The vision was to emulate western urbanisation, planning and development, which necessarily translated in a situation where the local needs of the people were not accounted for. This resulted in a pro-industrial concentrated urbanisation policy that strained limited resources, which were then located away from the rural areas.

Eventually, there was the marginalisation of rural areas as a direct response to marketisation and technology, which was not conducive with the existing level of skills or did not map the specific needs. The black economy did not help the situation. The weak social welfare system coupled with repetitive shocks to the unorganised sector made a bad situation worst.

No National Lockdown: A Greater Chaos

Prof Irudaya Rajan took it upon himself the task to locate for the audience the coming future of migrants. He pointed that speaking about the second wave as in the future is a futile exercise because the second wave has already begun. The prediction is India will have a caseload ranging from five lakh to eight lakh cases per day and 5,000 deaths for the coming month, to say the least. It is a condition of helplessness where most of the population is directly or indirectly affected by the virus itself.

Last March, PM Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown with less than 500 cases in India. However, there have been no national announcements this time. This time, Chief Ministers have taken the role of the Prime Minister and announced lockdown in their own states or specific districts. Karnataka has been the latest state to announce the same, even one state in lockdown will affect the migrant worker. One state in lockdown is the country going under lockdown because movement is hampered.

No Lessons From Lockdown 1.0

If the conditions don’t improve, the announcements of states announcing lockdown will continue. This chaos in national response only increases experiences of uncertainty. We have failed to protect migrants in the Covid wave. The response that has been repeatedly called for is cash transfers, which a few states have done for the meagre amount of Rs 1,000. No policy has the desired impact because there is no comprehensive data available.

india migrant worker
A migrant worker wears a face mask as he walks towards his home state during the nationwide lockdown, at Raisina Road, on May 10, 2020, in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

This lockdown impacts both inter-state and inter-country migrants. This is a question of the movement of 200 million people with no social security net and the absence of any means of livelihood. There was no assistance to the migrants and the Shramik trains charged migrants to return to their home states. These trains were popularly referred to as the Corona Express.

Starvation hit quickly because state support did not reach in time. — Prof Arun Kumar

Migrant bodies were reduced only to be the carriers of the Covid-19 virus. The government of India kept asking the migrants to stay where they are, with no assistance and no means of livelihood. The branding of the migrants as the carrier of the virus continued. Ms Akriti Bhatia pointed out that the government apathy and continuous neglect by media are criminal. The gated cities, hospitals and people make a condition where the cheapest lives become that of the migrant.

India’s Vaccination Policy For Migrants

The vaccination policy at this time has been in utter chaos. The vaccine, a life-saving necessity in the pandemic, has been phased in its availability. The priority first was health workers, followed by the age group above 45 years of age. The country is now debating monetising the vaccines at the price of Rs 150. The concern for the population that was going to travel was completely absent. Increasing public transportation at this response is only to encourage the loss of livelihoods and the government only needed to sustain the population with cash transfers.

Migrants have not been located as stakeholders in the vaccination drive. Had this been accounted for the second wave of the virus could have been prevented. They are as much as front-line workers, they have been preparing food, sanitising the city, working as domestic help. They became carriers of the virus because they were forgotten as city makers and were not accounted for in policy decisions. Tamil Nadu has announced that from May 1, 2021, the vaccination drive will focus on the migrant populations.

The vaccination policy needs to account for the varied conditions and varied demographics of the migrant population. Will the policy account for the treats of regionalism and vaccine nationalism? A lot of cross-border migration also takes place, policy must account for the same. Ms Akriti Bhatia pointed that looking at migrants as a homogenised body could lead to greater devastation.

Way Forward

Prof Irudaya Rajan suggested that the least the government can do at this time is to provide the migrants with a MGNREGA wage of Rs 200 per day. The response of the Delhi Government to provide Rs 5,000 to construction workers disadvantages the other sections of migrant workers. These payments must be in the form of advanced payment, which would help solve the disability of the migrants.

Sadly, this wave of the virus migrant crisis will take a back seat when there is a scarcity of resources. All major urban centres have their health care infrastructure failing with an acute shortage of beds, oxygen tanks, required medication. Given these conditions, the overflowing crematoriums only make the conditions worst.

Ms Akriti Bhatia emotively voiced the concern that there is no dignity attached to the lives of the migrants and they are only reduced to be carrier bodies. There is a multiplicity of crises, the regressive labour laws that have been passed disappear the migrant voices even further. No relief is actually reaching due to obsession with technology, documentation and registrations.

Prof Arun Kumar spoke of the need for a long-term solution that incorporated an understanding of the issue at hand. These answers cannot be located without understanding the precarious nature of migration itself. We are still not speaking of development that percolates down from the Adanis and Ambanis.

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