Migration and the state amid the Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 prompted migration crisis brought India’s inequalities into sharp relief.
Migrants contribute enormously to urban society and economy (Image: Pexels) Migrants contribute enormously to urban society and economy (Image: Pexels)

Through no fault of their own, migrants were forced to leave the cities after the government imposed a Covid-19 induced national lockdown in late March. After losing their work, fearing they would run out of cash and food they trudged back along with their families to the villages in search of humanity, food, and a place to live.

Most rural-urban migrants work in the unorganised sector and many are seasonal workers. They bore the brunt of economic closure and the fear of an uncertain future. The plight of the stranded migrant workers in the cities was discussed as part of a special lecture organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on July 11, 2020.

“They do not enjoy the same benefits and security such as employment contracts as tenured employees and thus paid the highest price during the pandemic. Even the non-seasonal workers employed at Surat, Gujarat as well as Tamil Nadu in the power loom, handloom, brick kiln industries got affected as they were employed in contract jobs, which are highly vulnerable in terms of job security and social protection,” said Prof Shakti Kak, Chairperson, Center for Work and Welfare, IMPRI in her opening remarks.

The pandemic has caused food and nutrition shortages. Civil society organisations provided meals to migrants, but it is the responsibility of the state, which fell short in its duties. This is evident from the fact that these workers had to approach the Supreme Court to demand safe passage to their homes.

Below are the excerpts of the special lecture by Prof Irudaya Rajan, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram where he highlighted the multiple hardships faced by migrants.

Facilitating safe migration requires data and policy, both of which do not exist in our country. There is no central registry of migrant workers, despite the existence of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. Migrants in today’s scenario are concerned more about livelihood than the Covid-19 pandemic since they had to deal with the loss of income, food shortages, and uncertainty about their future.

Many countries experienced lockdown but migrants in India were seen dying on the railway track, begging for food and flocking to railway stations as the state failed to provide free relief and transport to them. Yet, the country lacks data on the number of people who suffered the brunt of lockdown.

The government should have given the hint of one-week time before the lockdown like in Bangladesh. It should have arranged for special trains, buses, flights to get migrants to move back.

According to the Census 2011, there are 450 million people living in the place they were not born in the country. About 150 million people are predicted to have been added to the migrant population in the last decade. So, it can be projected that in the 2021 census, about 650 million people would be living at the place they aren’t born.

Out of these, one-third of the people i.e. 200 million accounts for interstate/inter-district migrants. Of these, only 140 million migrants would actually be working and were affected by the lockdown. The Economic Review says that 9 million people move back by train and buses in a year. We were never aware that these people were moving, but the pandemic underlined this.

Distress migration is common. On the one hand, there are policies to promote urbanisation and on the other, there are policies to retain poor people in rural areas. People are provided 100 days of employment under MGNREGA, but it is unlikely to succeed in curbing labour mobility significantly.

People are pouring into cities because they want to earn more money than the state guarantees in rural areas. This shows the discontent of these workers and the failure of the state to provide them vital facilities and meet the incoming demand for employment.

The middle-class residing in urban metros and other cities with the ability to work from home continued to earn a living while the income sources of the poor have dried up. Trains doubled up as Corona Express as they moved back migrants.

A migrant when interviewed said “I went to my village and was transported like livestock. I travelled in a lorry. Nobody seems to care about the migrant, that’s why they are walking on the streets.” Migrants are not beggars; we made them beggars because we don't have policies for them.

PM Cares Fund is being used for buying ventilators to deal with Covid-19 patients. This is important, but so is spending on efficiently providing food to the migrants, who are starving.

Who is responsible for the plight of migrants? Employers, their state of origin, or the state providing them work? Covid-19 showed that all of these simply abdicated their responsibilities towards the migrant underclass, which continued to suffer. The migrants, who were the heroes of their families all these years, have been made just zeros. Because overnight, from being the biggest source of support to their families, for the first time the migrants left the cities empty-handed only accompanied with the stigma that they are the carriers of coronavirus.

Migrants have faced a permanent loss of their incomes and large cash support is what is needed, and it would have much larger fiscal benefit as it would boost consumption demand.

“Decline in the overall income would lead to the decline in the living standards of the people and not many will be able to stay afloat during the severe downturn. They won’t be able to invest in better education and health facilities. Even if the government were to create an enabling legal and political framework that addresses the needs of migrants, questions would remain on the weak implementation and monitoring in our country,” said Prof RP Mamgain, S R Sankaran Chair, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad while speaking at the webinar.

“Safe migration needs planned and well-managed policies which are the responsibility of the state. Though policies mention migrants but their implementation is lacking. The four Ds – dirty, dangerous, difficult and discrimination are the characteristics of migrant workers. There is no registration or secondary data resource that provides updated data of migrants. Also, in most of the policy discourse, migrants are invisible,” said Prof Arvind Pandey.

The country failed miserably to aid stranded internal migrants, but it’s time that public policies provide migrants decent and dignified livelihoods and life in cities that are inclusive.

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