Support mechanism needed to halt mass reverse migration

Stranded migrant workers during lockdown because of COVID-19 pandemic in Delhi (Image: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikimedia Commons)
Stranded migrant workers during lockdown because of COVID-19 pandemic in Delhi (Image: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikimedia Commons)

Migrant workers had been assured multiple times that an economic lockdown will not be imposed and yet by mid-April reverse migration was in full swing. In this backdrop, Impact and Policy Research Institute, Counterview and Working Peoples Charter organized a panel discussion on the sudden exodus of migrants and the multiple challenges faced by them.  

The panel comprised of Prof. Arun Kumar, Retd. Professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University; Prof. Irudaya Rajan, Chairman, International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMAD) and Professor, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Kerala; Ms. Akriti Bhatia, Founder, People’s Association In Grassroots Action and Movement (PAIGAM). 

COVID-19 exposing the holes in urban resilience strategies 

The event was moderated by Mr. Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla and Senior Visiting Fellow, IMPRI. “Tragedy seems to be unfolding yet again as COVID infections have risen. Vaccines shortages are rampant. State governments have started implementing partial or full lockdown. Sections of labour are sceptical of the lockdown that is looming large because of the uncertainties regarding livelihoods,” he said.

Migrant livelihoods have emerged as the central issue of our times as it in danger yet again. This jeopardizes the 30 years of the lassiez-faire planning system. The key question remains “What cities are we building? Migration has been an essential pillar of our civilization. Presently, it seems that cities all over are unable to enhance their resilience in the face of multiple and complex challenges and all city resilience indices have failed,” he said.

“Surat which is highlighted as a model for urbanization has been on the boil once again as thousands of migrants returned after being stranded as workplaces closed. The fissures in planning in Indian cities got exposed as these turned into hubs of inequality. We will live on roti and salt, but we will not come back is a common refrain of the migrants,” said Panwar. 

Migrants facing an extraordinary crisis: IMPRI

During the panel discussion, researchers at IMPRI presented an eagle eye on the issue of migration in the country and drew its correlation with the rising COVID-19 cases. They discussed the current case load in the country, the details of myriad forms of lockdown and the hotspots of the mass reverse exodus of migrants. The presentation also highlighted the glaring absence of data on migrants during the pandemic.

The set of social security schemes for the migrants in the first lockdown and the response of government policies so far, compiled by IMPRI was discussed. The need for a welfare approach based on an understanding of the magnitude of the challenge was central to the migrant's fight for human rights to life and dignity. Ensuring health, safety, nutrition, and livelihood security to this forgotten population of cities was critical.

Lockdown versus livelihood: Need to tackle the root of the problem

Criticising the hard lockdown unaccompanied by steps to safeguard people’s livelihoods, economist Prof. Arun Kumar said “the lockdown does not lessen the incidence of the disease but helps in slowing the spread of the disease and eventually prevents its spread. Lockdown then becomes a means to mitigate national disaster and avoid a frightening surge of cases considering the state of health infrastructure in the country. In India, however, the severe and prolonged lockdown conditions led to migrants losing out both in terms of lives and livelihoods.”

India is the worst-hit economy in the world, because of its large unorganized sector which was migrating back from urban to rural areas. This reflects the government's poor grasp of migrant labour issues and the root cause of their problem. The answers lie in understanding where planning failed - first in migration from rural to urban and then reverse migration during the lockdown. 

As per the first round of a livelihood survey conducted by the Azim Premji University amidst COVID-19, two thirds of the migrant population had lost employment and the earnings in the informal sector dropped by half. The findings were based on a survey of nearly 5,000 self-employed, casual, and regular wage workers across 12 states of India, conducted between 13 April and 23 May in collaboration with civil society organizations. Livelihoods were not just under strain, but were wiped out with the study locating 80 percent migrants not having enough income to sustain meals for a week. 

Reason for migration

Large scale migration is the result of a top-down policymaking approach. The vision was to emulate western urbanization, planning and development, which necessarily led to a situation where local needs of the people were not addressed. This resulted in a pro-industrial concentrated urbanization policy which strained limited resources which were then extracted away from the rural areas. 

Eventually, there was the marginalization of rural areas which was a direct response of marketization, and technology which was not conducive to the existing level of skills or did not map the specific needs. Black economy, the weak social welfare system coupled with repetitive shocks to the unorganized sector worsened the situation. 

No national lockdown: A greater chaos 

“Predictions suggest that India will have a caseload ranging from 5 to 8 lakh cases per day and 5000 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, said Prof. Irudaya Rajan.

In March 2020, India had announced a national lockdown with less than 500 cases. There have been no national announcements this time. Chief Ministers have taken the role of Prime Ministers and have announced lockdown in their own states or specific districts. Even one state in lockdown is the same as the country going under lockdown because movement is hampered.

No lessons from lockdown 1.0

If the conditions do not improve, states will continue with lockdown announcement and extension. This chaos in national response only increases experiences of uncertainty. We have failed to protect migrants in the COVID-19 second wave through cash transfers. Few states have announced a cash transfer of a meagre amount of Rs. 1000. No policy has the desired impact because there is no comprehensive data available. 

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 complete absence of any means of livelihood. There was no assistance to the migrants and the Shramik Special trains popularly referred to as the Corona Express charged migrants to return to their home states. Starvation hit quickly because state support did not reach in time.

“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,” said Prof. Arun Kumar.

Ms Akriti Bhatia pointed out that the government apathy and continuous neglect by media is criminal. The gated cities, hospitals and apathy of people create conditions where migrant’s lives are the cheapest. 

Vaccination policy 

The vaccination policy presently is in utter chaos. The vaccine, a life-saving necessity has been phased in its availability. The priority first was health workers, senior citizens, followed by the age group above 45 years of age. The country has now monetised the vaccines. There is a lack of concern for the migrant population. The government needs to sustain the migrant population with cash transfers. 

Migrants have not been treated as stakeholders in the vaccination drive. Had that been done, the second wave of the pandemic could have been prevented. Migrants are very much like frontline workers. They have been preparing food, sanitizing the city and 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 is an exception as it announced that from May 1, 2021, the vaccination drive will focus on the migrant population.

The vaccination policy needs to account for the diverse condition and demographics of the migrant population. Will the policy account for the threats 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 homogenized 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 MGNREGA wage of Rs. 200 per day. The response of the Delhi Government to provide Rs. 5000 to construction workers excludes the other sections of migrant workers. These payments must be in the form of advance payment which can sustain the migrants. 

Sadly, in this wave of the pandemic, the migrant crisis will take a back seat as there is a scarcity of resources. In all major urban centres, health care infrastructure is failing with an acute shortage of beds, oxygen tanks and required medication. Given these conditions, the overflowing crematoriums only worsen the situation.

“There is no dignity attached to the lives of the migrants and they are only reduced to carrier bodies. There are multiple crises, the regressive labour laws that have been passed weaken the migrant voices even further. No relief is actually reaching due to obsession with technology, documentation and registration,” said Ms. Akriti Bhatia.

Prof Arun Kumar spoke of the need for a long term solution that incorporates 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 which percolates down from the top,” he said.