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Home / India News / Pandemic teaches a tragic lesson in migration

Pandemic teaches a tragic lesson in migration

Migration is an old phenomenon in India, but exploded as growth soared with liberalisation in 1991, birthing a paradox: Booming cities needed cheap labour but the high cost of living was far beyond what migrant workers could afford.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2020 19:42 IST
Debabrata Mohanty and Dhrubo Jyoti
Debabrata Mohanty and Dhrubo Jyoti
Migrant workers in Delhi walk back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh in March.
Migrant workers in Delhi walk back to their villages in Uttar Pradesh in March. (Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)

In February, B Ajurm Patro travelled 1,000km from her village in Odisha’s Ganjam district to Chennai in search of a job. In May, unemployed, starving and with the fear of the coronavirus stalking her, she took a bus back. Now, despite cases surging in Tamil Nadu and her daughter just three, she is ready to make the journey again.

Her heart is telling her to stay put in Manapalli, a village of 1,500 people that acts as a reservoir of migrant labour for the industrial powerhouse southern states, but her mind is made up.

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“What work is there for us in Manapalli? We can’t have two square meals a day even if we toil hard,” she said, looking around her modest two-room mud house where supplies have dwindled since they got back on May 27. “Our house has to be made concrete. Can we always live in a tin-roofed house?” she asked.

Manapalli is one of hundreds of villages in Khallikote block, a former zamindari estate in Ganjam district. Though electricity has reached the village, piped water is still a pipe dream. Most households have drumstick trees in their courtyard, and fried leaves of the tree form the staple diet. The village houses have pucca walls, but with tin roofs . A lack of irrigation cripples farming activity except in the monsoon, and almost all families have taken to goat rearing to get by the rest of the year.

Chakrapani Rout, chief of the gram panchayat, said if people need to earn a living, they have to migrate. “Unless people migrate, they have little to survive. There is no irrigation system and farmers are dependent upon monsoon,” said Rout.

Every evening, Ajurm, 40, meets other women who rue the loss of their jobs in Chennai. Once the Ganjam administration relaxes its curbs -- Ajurm hopes this will happen by the end of June -- all the women have decided to go back to Tamil Nadu. “We are left with nothing now,” she said.

It took 70 days for Ajurm, her husband B Ghana Patro and daughter Smrutilekha to get back home. But they couldn’t amass enough money to bring back her 20-year-old son Kailash, who worked as a construction labourer in Chennai and who is still stuck in the city.

Ajurm thinks of her son every day, and it steels her determination to get back. “Kailash, too, would have come back with us, but he ran out of money after he arranged for our return journey. I felt bad leaving him back there,” she said.

Ajurm’s story is shared by millions of workers who are now taking buses, trains and hitching rides on trucks to go back to their factories, construction sites, auto shops and gyms, merely two months after their harrowing journey back home spotlighted the predicament of communities caught in a web of migration.

The pandemic and overnight shuttering of the economy exposed their economic precarity. Some perished on the way and the others vowed to never go back to cities that did little to support them in crisis -- only to change their mind in the face of economic ruin back home. “What choice do we have? We have to go back and we will,” said Ajurm.

Long journey

Ajurm’s journey followed a typical pattern. They were a marginal family with no land holdings so Ghana migrated in 2015 to work at a construction site in Ahmedabad, then in Mumbai and finally in Chennai. When Kailash passed his Class 12 examinations in 2019, he too went to Chennai to join his father. Finally, in February, with Smritilekha old enough to travel, Ajurm realised the money she made as an agricultural labour was a fraction of what she could make in the city.

So she used a contractor her husband and son knew, and, with 30 other women from Manapalli, arrived in Chennai in the first week of February. She soon got a job lifting bricks and carrying a mixture of cement and sand, making Rs 350-400 a day. Her mason husband earned Rs 700 and son another Rs 400, giving her hope that she would soon be able to cast the roof of her house with cement and bricks.

When the lockdown was clamped on March 25, all three of them lost their jobs. The contractor asked the to wait for three weeks, but when the lockdown was extended in April, he told them to leave Chennai.

By then, many other workers around their neighbourhood had started walking or cycling back home but it wasn’t an option for Ajurm. “How could I take the risk of cycling with a 3-year-old or walking all the way,” she said.

The contractor arranged food for a couple of more weeks, but soon supplies ran out, even as the infection swept through their neighbourhood. “I was worried for my daughter more than anything,” said Ajurm.

On May 4, when the first relaxations were announced, their finances were already depleted; but some facilities opened in the relatively less-affected districts outside Chennai, so the couple travelled 80km to another construction site. They paid Rs 700 to an auto-rickshaw driver and worked there for a week, earning Rs 5,000.

But Ajurm fell sick and they had to come back to Chennai. By then, the city was reporting upwards of 500 cases every day, and she was worried about her daughter. There was, however, one problem: Two seats on a bus cost Rs 9,000 while the couple had just Rs 5,000 with them.

Kailash solved the problem. He borrowed Rs 5,000 from another contractor, though this meant he would be in debt and stuck in the city. “He wanted to come back, but we did not have enough money to get another seat,” said Ghana.

Familiar pattern

Migration is an old phenomenon in India, but exploded as growth soared with liberalisation in 1991, birthing a paradox: Booming cities needed cheap labour but the high cost of living was far beyond what migrant workers could afford. Nevertheless, for millions of people trying to break out of poverty, the cities offered the opportunity of jobs that did not exist in their home districts.

“As workers sought to tap into opportunities offered by inhospitable cities, they worked out a variety of complex, and often personally devastating, arrangements,” said Narender Pani, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru.

At the centre of this phenomenon, Pani elaborated, was a post-liberalisation development strategy that didn’t factor in issues such as location of industries. “As a result districts towards the north and the east of the country have seen a major movement out of agriculture without a commensurate growth in industry. Workers are thus forced to seek work towards the south and the west of the country,” he added.

Khallikote is a prime example of this.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) , which allots 100 days of paid work to its beneficiaries, is of some assistance but the job card of many of the villagers is with the local Gram Rozgar Sevak, a government appointee who oversees the distribution of job cards and allocation of work to applicants, and who often pockets a fixed percentage of the money meant for villagers. “Last time, a Gram Rozgar Sevak asked me to sign on a column in the card that said I have received Rs 6,600, but gave me Rs 2,000,” alleged Ajurm.

A rapid assessment of people coming back to Odisha by the non-governmental organisation Gram Vikas and Kerala’s Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development found migrant workers need a monthly income of Rs 5,001 to Rs 10,000 to continue smoothly with their lives.

In Ganjam alone, more than 200,000 people have returned since May. The district administration pushed to expand the NREGS schemes but many workers say it involves hard labour and little skill, for very little pay. Ganjam district collector Vijay Amrit Kulange said few migrant labourers enrolled for NREGS works. Ganjam is one of the 116 districts in India under the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan , which aims to provide rural infrastructure and modern facilities such as internet in villages.

None of the benefits have reached Manapalli yet. Since she reached home, Ajurm is yet to get a good meal; the rice she gets under the national food security act is the family’s only source of sustenance. She wants to stay home for her daughter, but is worried about the lack of income. “In Chennai, I used to get Rs 350-400. Will I be able to get that sort of money in my village?” she asked.

Lessons learnt

Most workers typically do not have the capital for the whole family to move at once. Using familial or communal networks, the man usually moves into the house of a relative, or sometimes even a friend, in the big city. As he looks for and finds work, it becomes the duty of the woman in the friend’s household to cook for all of them – in addition to her daily-wage job. The migrant then brings his wife to help share the household work and, over time, the wife also begins a job. “At this stage, the migrants have the capital to find some place to rent and set up a household of their own,” said Pani.

“They look for jobs in factories in the formal sector. Women who have completed middle school usually look for work in industries that are women-dominated, such as the garment export industry. Once both husband and wife have found some modicum of stability in the city, they can bring their children to live with them,” Pani added.

A few days after the lockdown was clamped on March 25, migrant workers started appearing on highways, bags slung on their backs, a bundle on their heads and children cradled in one arm. From May 1, the government announced shramik special trains, which soon sparked complaints of poor scheduling, and long hours without food or water. Nevertheless, 3,800 trains ran full over almost a month.

“What the crisis did, irreversibly, is that it brought up migration as an issue like never before. Anytime migration is talked about after this, people will remember these images,” said Chinmay Tumbe, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

There were some big takeaways from the crisis.

One, it laid bare what Sai Balakrishnan, a professor at Harvard University, calls the spatial rift of India’s unequal development. Balakrishnan connected the migration to the Green Revolution that enabled some dominant agrarian castes to accumulate capital in the west and south even as the absence of state intervention deprived the east.

Two, it showed how dependent the big cities were on migrant labour. Within weeks of their leaving, labour shortages were reported from major projects in Delhi and Mumbai. “In our metros, they make up 15-20% of the workforce, and their absence may hurt businesses quite badly,” said Tumbe.

Three, it shone a light on the continued precarity of workers who do not consider cities they live in for decades as their home – because of uncertainties around food, health care, care-giving and housing. “This is a very sobering reality of the exclusionary nature of our cities and urbanisation,” said Balakrishnan.

Policy measures such as one-nation-one-ration card, which allows holders to draw benefits from any fair-price shop in the country regardless of home state, may alleviate some of this. “It needs to get off the ground real quick. We need to be more clear on its architecture and need more discussion on that. Who will pay for it is a challenge,” said Tumbe.

Four, it underlined the growing chasm between the economic reality of migration and the political rhetoric on nativism. In the past two years, a number of states have moved to reserve large chunks of jobs for local populations amid rising tension over the figure of the “outsider” taking up jobs. How this will square with migration remains to be seen.

Tumbe predicted some tension in the next six months as the economy struggles to regain steam after the pandemic. “Once the employment reality kicks in, there will be pressure to give more jobs to locals. The one-nation-one-ration-card policy incentivises inter-state migration, but most state governments incentivise locals. How will this play out at a time of low employment?”

To this end, he suggested the constitution of an inter-state migrant council on the lines of the GST council. Some states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have already set up migrant commissions.

Five, it showed the absence of any hard data on migrants.

According to the 2011 census, there were 45 million migrants in India who had migrated for economic reasons. Over a quarter (13.4 million) were interstate migrants and a third (15.4 million) were interdistrict migrants. Just four states – Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, and Karnataka – housed half (52%) of all migrants. And just three states -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan -- were the source of half (53%) the migrant labourers.

To be sure, it is possible that these numbers are a gross underestimate because the census did not adequately capture the number of migrants who move from one place to another for a short duration. The Economic Survey of 2016-17 estimated the number of interstate and interdistrict migrants to be 60 million and 80 million respectively. A conservative estimate by Tumbe put the number at 30 million while other estimates range anywhere between 80 and 120 million.

“We don’t know how many people move. In many states, the number of people was more than double of what we thought earlier. The big learning was that states have no clue how many people worked there,” said Tumbe.

Worst affected

Some of the worst-affected people by the crisis were Dalit and Adivasi workers, who make up a large pool of migrant workers and who have faced discrimination back in their villages. Many of them moved to cities to escape the deeply entrenched social inequalities in rural areas but found their hopes of a better life dashed when the virus struck India.

“That internal distress migration in India is disproportionately made up of Dalits and Adivasis is well documented in migration research. What I want to underscore here is that it is not only caste-based forms of inequality, but also the regional inequality that is exposed by the ongoing migrant crisis. The Dalits and Adivasis from eastern U.P, Bihar, Odisha, have to trek almost across the breadth of the country to find work,” said Balakrishnan.

Sanjib Mondal is one of them. A resident of the North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, Mondal came back in May, only to see Cyclone Amphan pummel his village and destroy his home. Now, despite his fears of contracting Covid-19, he knows he has to go back and find work in Gujarat. “We have a home neither here nor there, but the money is better there. So what’s the harm in going back?” he asked.

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