Despite Covid-19, why did migrant workers go back? Opinion
They live alone, in illegally rented rooms or on the street, and face hostile authorities. Understand the desperation
We have all seen disturbing images of migrant workers trying to walk back to their villages after the sudden India-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19). In response, some state governments arranged buses to ferry them from designated urban depots to their villages. But the subsequent overcrowding in these depots defeated the purpose of social distancing, a prime motive of the lockdown.
This Covid-19-induced migrant crisis has prompted several questions.
Who are these migrant communities? Why did the lockdown prompt them to flee from the cities, and why did the Centre and states not anticipate this? How can the State’s reactive response be improved, for now, and the future?
It is tempting to view this crisis purely as a consequence of the challenges of Covid-19. The virus has flummoxed governments around the world, including those with far more resources than India. The coronavirus poses daunting questions of how to balance public health concerns with the economic fallout. Yet it would be a mistake to view the migrant crisis as an unintentional by-product of the pandemic.
My seven-year-long research on internal migrants shows that the government’s missteps were built on deeper, systematic inadequacies in its treatment of these communities. Internal migrants in India are a vast and heterogeneous population. The subset of migrants we are now talking about are marked by three traits. One, they predominantly migrate from villages to cities; second, they are low-income populations who work in the informal sector; and third, they have not permanently relocated their families to the city. Instead, they circulate between villages and cities several times a year.
There are three structural inadequacies in public understanding of circular rural-urban migrants.
The first is an inability to recognise the size and importance of these communities. For example, the National Sample Survey found the all-India rate of short-term migration to be 1.7% in rural areas, and less than 1% in urban areas. Yet many scholars think these figures are an underestimate and do not match with other data sources. For example, circular migrants dominate employment sectors such as construction labour. At present, 35 million workers are registered under various construction welfare boards, a number which by itself is nearly 3% of the population. While some construction workers may not be migrants, many migrants are not registered with these boards, and this is only one employment sector.
Our inability to correctly count short-term migrants is not surprising, given the informal conditions in which they live and work, and their shuttling between their villages and cities. These traits reduce the chances of accessing migrant respondents through standard residence-based surveys. This inability has real costs, rendering governments ill-prepared to anticipate the responses of migrant communities at crucial moments. Policymakers were unprepared for the speed and desperation with which these migrants attempted to return home following the lockdown order.
A deeper understanding reveals that this desperation is neither irrational nor surprising.
I conducted a survey with 3,018 circular migrant construction workers in Delhi and Lucknow. While this sample was limited to only male migrant construction workers, the survey’s findings are still instructive.
They reveal that migrants have few reasons to stay in their destination cities, and many reasons to leave.
The majority of those surveyed (63%) had no family members living with them. In the city, they lived in cramped and usually illegally rented rooms (52%); or slept on footpaths (25%). Less than 3% held ration cards registered in the city. Finally, they earn low wages, and remit most of their savings, leaving little to cushion them if work stops. This precariousness is furthered by the hostile treatment they receive from urban authorities, especially the police since they sleep in public streets, squares, and footpaths.
Remarkably, 33% of my survey respondents of migrants in Lucknow had experienced violent police action within the past year in the city, while fewer than 5% had ever done so in their home villages. They also live and work near urban elites, who frequently pressure local governments to act against them.
The survey also revealed that on average, these migrants made 2.55 trips each year to their home village, but also spent on average upwards of six months a year within the city. Further, over half had been engaging in circular migration for at least eight years.
Without addressing these conditions, it will be hard to deal with the current crisis or prevent future ones. While highly transient, a proper response can only begin with the recognition of circular migrants as part of India’s urban population.
Recognising migrants as part of our cities might compel authorities to at least consider how proposed policies might impact these communities. At present, such ex-ante awareness would have allowed the government to decide whether to target scarce resources towards enabling safe return or keep migrants in destination cities. Ex-post, we see government actors oscillating between these two strategies, thereby enacting policies at cross-purposes.
A policy centred on getting migrants home should prioritise dedicated transport options to prevent overcrowding, especially along high-intensity migration corridors. It will also require a set of protocols within villages for isolating migrants in a manner that is neither unsafe nor stigmatising, particularly as many migrants come from disadvantaged castes or minority faiths. Keeping migrants in cities can include direct cash transfers, as some states are trying through construction welfare boards.
Civil society organisations such as the Aajeevika Bureau have called for relaxing the restrictions that prevent migrants from accessing vital benefits such as food rations in their destination cities. Experts, including Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, have called for repurposing available spaces, such as sports stadia and empty hotels, for migrants to stay in safely.
We must understand that such short-term measures cannot address old structural problems. For example, construction welfare boards cannot channel benefits to many migrant workers since many are not registered with them. There must be a registration drive to expand this net. Reconfiguring the domicile-centric public distribution system can help migrants. But most important, states must soften their view of migrants as a law and order problem, an attitude that has been all too clear during this crisis.
Worryingly, some of the directives from the ministry of home affairs order on the “restriction of movement of migrants” may only entrench repressive enforcement over compassionate accommodation. Unless migrants are afforded their rights, and dignity in the cities they build, these unresolved issues will bedevil us again in the future.
Tariq Thachil is associate professor (Political Science), Vanderbilt University
The views expressed are personal