Two Steps Back: A long walk home

April 10, 2020 5:05 AM

The crisis showed government’s inability to anticipate reverse migration. It must provide emergency aid at state borders

In fact, a large number of migrants, both rural and urban, were found violating lockdown norms by fleeing to their distant homes on foot. In fact, a large number of migrants, both rural and urban, were found violating lockdown norms by fleeing to their distant homes on foot.

By Santosh Mehrotra & J Parida

As a coping mechanism, the Indian government declared a short-term lockdown along with the emergency relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore. Though it is a good step with noble intent, it may not be too effective during the immediate crisis as it betrays a lack of understanding of the migration phenomenon and the ‘reverse migration’ that Covid-19 triggered.

The relief package will be less than effective for a variety of reasons. Most private-sector workers, who do not have regular paid jobs with a written employment contract, mostly found in MSMEs, are not likely to get salary/income, and hence, are likely to go without food, unless they can access some emergency assistance.

In fact, a large number of migrants, both rural and urban, were found violating lockdown norms by fleeing to their distant homes on foot. The pandemic is likely to grow exponentially if these workers carry the novel coronavirus back. The problem is, however, that while governments are usually very responsive to the plight of Indian migrant workers stranded abroad (hundreds of them have been brought back home in special flights), the plight of workers at home has received attention only after the announcement of the lockdown. Why should this be the case? This could have easily been anticipated. Wanting to go home in a crisis is natural. If Indian students, tourists, and pilgrims stranded overseas wish to return, so do labourers in big cities. Second, ‘reverse migration’ is not new-the 2005 floods in Mumbai saw many workers fleeing the city. When the plague broke out in western India in 1994, there was an exodus from the industrial city of Surat.

Governments’ utter lack of anticipation has consequences. With rail/bus transport stopped due to lockdown, the death incidence due to exhaustion, disease, and road accidents was already 22 a week ago, when the same from Covid-19 was 29.

The provision of relief packages through ration card, or an Aadhaar-linked bank account is problematic as most migrant labourers wouldn’t carry their ration cards to their temporary workplaces (particularly those who migrate without their family). Neither would they carry the debit card and passbooks of the Aadhaar card bank account used by the account holder. Most migrant workers might not use advanced digital payment systems like UPI, or e-wallets, etc. We know that the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017-18) by NSS reveals that more than half the urban workforce still has poor levels of education-they are either illiterate or, at most, have only primary education. Most are in informal jobs without any social security. They are either casual labourers working on a daily wage or self-employed vegetable vendors, petty traders, auto-rickshaw drivers, gatherers, cleaners, plumbers, barbers, porters, etc. This group is highly vulnerable as the incidence of poverty is also very high among them (about 42%).

The emergency assistance could take different forms-feeding centres, or distributing take-home rations irrespective of ration cards. In this process, all the state governments should complement the Centre by providing logistic and other necessary arrangements. Some 56 districts in nine Indian states account for half of the inter-state migration of male workers. This suggests that 8-9% of India’s 250,000-gram panchayats and district administrations in these 56 districts should be testing returning workers at state borders for the virus, and isolate infected people in local facilities. The least that can be done is for the state police to be instructed that looting such workers will be punished by dismissal, and beating/terrorising them will be punished by disciplinary proceedings that involve ‘major penalties’, not mere temporary suspensions from duty.

We have estimated the number of low-skilled casual and informal migrant workers living in urban India, using both the NSS migration (2007-08) data and the PLFS employment (2017-18) survey data. Of the total 120 million urban non-farm workers, about 58 million workers are either casual daily wage labourers or self-employed. About 36% of these workers are migrants. Hence, the total number of low-skilled migrant labourers in urban India was about 21 million in 2017-18. The share of migrants in the urban workforce may have increased to 40% (due to mechanisation in agriculture). So, the total would be about 30 million. States like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana), Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, and Odisha are among the major destinations of these urban, low-skilled migrants.

Taking the number of migrants as 30 million (maximum), daily feeding, costing Rs 200 per person, for four months would cost only Rs 0.72 lakh crore. Moreover, an additional Rs 5,000/- per month supplementary income to all these migrants would cost around Rs 0.6 lakh crore more. Given these calculations, it appears that a government relief package of Rs 1.32 lakh crore targeting only such migrants is sufficient, but it must reach the migrants immediately. This should have been planned for and provided before the lockdown began. Since it was not done in time, it must now be provided where the migrants are-at the borders.

Mehrotra is Professor of Economics, Centre for Labour, JNU & Parida is Assistant Professor of Economics, Central University of Punjab. Views are personal

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