The tragic lessons of Covid migrant crisis
Millions of labourers spilled out of India’s cities in a desperate attempt to reach home during the lockdown. Their plight holds important takeaways for the country’s policymakers and development strategists
In August last year, Bamda Paharia finally gave up.
The 48-year-old worker had migrated from Jharkhand in February that year to work at a construction site for ₹7,000 a month – the first time he was stepping out of his remote tribal hamlet, ravaged by acute unemployment.
Weeks later, the government locked down the country to arrest the spread of Covid-19. Public transport went off the roads, trains stopped, and industry ground to a halt. Overnight, Paharia was thrown out of his rented accommodation after his contractor refused to pay his wages.
No job in hand or penny in his pocket, Paharia started scrounging the Capital’s deserted streets for food and shelter. He sometimes slept on the streets, sometimes in homes started by the government and social organisations, and ate at community kitchens started across the city.
When his fellow labourers started pouring out of Delhi into the highways, Paharia kept put. A frail man hailing from an impoverished tribe, he had neither the physical strength nor the networks required to undertake the 1,400km journey.
With his meagre savings dwindling, Paharia took to begging when the city started opening up from May. He spoke only Santhali, had few friends and didn’t own a phone, so no one told him when the government started special trains to ferry workers like him back to their homes.
In the last week of August, Paharia suddenly found himself at the New Delhi railway station. He had never been there before, having been brought in a bus from Jharkhand’s Sahibganj to Delhi.
He looked up, and other groups of workers were leaving for their home states. “But I had no money to buy a ticket, and anyway, no one understood my language,” he said. Paharia stood at station for a long time, trying to talk to people. From broken conversations, he inferred the direction and tracks taken by Jharkhand-bound trains.
“I decided to start walking along the railway track to reach home. I had no idea how far it was and how many days it could take,” he said.
With a pair of fraying rubber chappals, Paharia started walking. The Jharkhand administration later estimated that he quickly got lost as he strayed from the railway track in search of food and shelter.
For weeks, he walked through forests, villages, fields – often on an empty stomach. He made do with green leaves or fruits that had fallen from trees along the tracks. Sometimes, he begged for food and water in villages that fell along the route.
He slept near tracks, railway stations or adjoining villages. Many people offered him food on the way, thinking he was a beggar or mentally ill. “But I just walked, thinking I will reach home one day,” he said.
On March 11, members of a local NGO found an exhausted man wandering along a railway crossing in Mahuda town, 1,200km from Delhi. “He said he did not eat for many days. We provided him food and clothes, and raised fund for his transportation to Sahebganj,” said Suraj Kumar, a member of the NGO Roti Bank.
On March 13, he reached his home village of Amarbitha to the shock and surprise of his wife, Nandri Paharia, and three daughters. “We did not know about his journey. We thought he was earning in Delhi. I could not contact him for past eight months, as he had no phone with him,” said his wife.
The local administration has started a probe into the middleman, identified as Rajesh Thakur, who sent Paharia to Delhi and later duped him of his wages. “Thakur is absconding since Paharia reached his village. We have lodged a complaint with police,” said block development officer Suman Sourabh.
The government is now providing Paharia with free ration, monthly pension of ₹1,000 and signed them up for housing scheme. At any rate, Paharia is determined to never leave his two-room thatched house in the scenic foothills of the Rajmahal range. He never wants to go back to Delhi.
The pandemic threw up many such Paharias.
There is Mohammad Saiyub, whose photo cradling his dying best friend Amrit Kumar, on the side of a highway in the middle of the lockdown, went viral. Saiyub, a 23-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh and Kumar were childhood friends who moved away for better fortunes. They shared a tenement at a textile unit in Surat and were on their way back home when Kumar fell sick and died in Madhya Pradesh. Saiyub returned home to Basti district but he finds it difficult to sustain with his local business, and cannot fulfil his one wish: help his best friend’s family.
There is Rampukar Pandit, who broke down near Delhi’s Nizamuddin bridge while talking to his wife on the phone. Pandit, a construction worker, had moved to the Capital from Bihar’s Begusarai district and was stuck in the city after March 25. But in early May, his wife told him that their youngest son was grievously ill and could die. Desperate to reach home, Pandit tried to dodge restrictions, get some money for a ticket, but failed. By the time he reached home in the second week of May, his son was dead.
And, there was Jyoti Kumari, a 17-year-old girl who pedalled her purple bicycle from Gurugram to Darbhanga district in Bihar with her injured father in tow. With help from other migrant workers, short lifts from truck drivers and food from local people, they reached their village nine days later.
A tweet from Ivanka Trump and national media attention brought her accolades, an offer of a biopic, and a trial at the cycling federation of India. It also improved their social status in the village as upper-caste families suddenly wanted to bask in the glory of their Dalit neighbour.
Together, they became the face of the plight of millions of workers who brought home the horrors and pain of India’s deeply unequal development process that spawned the internal migration crisis.
“The migrant crisis exposed and made visible the brutal spatial pattern of India’s economy: that there is a spatial rift between the regions of surplus labor and regions where work is available,” said Sai Balakrishnan, a professor at the University of Berkeley.
IMPLICATIONS ON PUBLIC HEALTH
At the time, experts and government officers worried about the public health implications of migrant workers carrying back the virus from cities to the countryside, where poverty was widespread and medical infrastructure thin.
But with the exception of some districts – Ganjam in Odisha that saw the second-highest virus deaths in the state – there was no major correlation between migrants returning and massive infection spikes.
“It turned out better than we thought, and indeed, better than anyone else might have predicted. Some states saw a rise in cases but not all and it’s not specifically clear whether migrants were responsible for the increase in numbers or simply some travel from cities, where the disease was well entrenched initially, to more rural areas,” said Gautam Menon, a professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University.
According to him, the migrant crisis was tackled differently in different states.
In rural Karnataka, stringent control measures and targeted testing appeared to have checked the disease spread. In Odisha, some districts saw a spike that was directly correlated to the return of migrants. In Bihar, there didn’t seem to be any correlation between migrant return and increase in cases, he said.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – two highly populous states with the largest number of migrant workers – consistently reported a relatively smaller numbers of cases and deaths relative to their population. Their test positivity rates were also low, suggesting that this isn’t just a fallout of inadequate testing. “This is a priori surprising, but suggestive of the fact that the influx of migrants returning from the cities might not have been a key contributor to the spread across these states,” said Menon.
Scientists now estimate that the relatively young age of the local population in the migrant’s home states and measures taken by district administration to quarantine them may have worked. “There’s little doubt that many of those who returned carried the infection with them… but as far as we can see, the impact was reduced compared to what was feared initially,” said Menon.
Experts and policymakers are still learning from the crisis that is considered the biggest incident of internal movement of people since the Partition.
The government says it swiftly moved to help migrants.
The ‘one nation, one ration card’ programme to enable countrywide access to subsidised grain for 20.4 million migrant workers is now operational in all states.
The Union government announced relief under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), which includes a one-time ex gratia payment of ₹500 per month for three months, hiked rates under the rural jobs scheme, and instituted the ₹50,000 crore Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan to boost employment and livelihood opportunities for returnee migrant workers in India’s most backward districts.
“More than 50 crore man-days of employment was created under the abhiyaan with an expenditure of Rs. 39292.81 crore,” rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar told Parliament last week.
The government ordered last September a nationwide survey of internal migrants to plug data gaps. The Union labour ministry told Lok Sabha last week that the number of internal migrants was currently estimated at around 100 million.
The government also ran 4,621 Shramik special trains between May 1 and August 31, carrying 6.3 million passengers. But workers said these trains were packed, had no water or food and were poorly scheduled. At least 97 people died while travelling in these trains. This didn’t include 16 people who were run over by a freight train while sleeping on the tracks.
“These migrant deaths raise urgent questions on public infrastructure, who was allowed to remain mobile and who was made immobile, why was capital allowed to circulate but not labour, and how these decisions around public infrastructure make visible the differentiated rights amongst India’s publics,” said Balakrishnan.
Experts urge more robust responses that fundamentally re-imagine the country’s development strategy. They identify three main challenges.
One, reorient the country’s development strategy that has spurred internal migration in the belief that it was labour’s business to reach capital, wherever it is. This resulted in labour sinks in the east and north that provide workers to the industrial powerhouses of the south and west.
“How, for instance, can India develop thriving economic clusters in the lower Gangetic plain? The lower Gangetic plain is now a peripheral location that exports surplus labour that creates value in the core regions of western India; how can these unequal core-periphery relations be dismantled?” asked Balakrishnan.
Two, imagine new labour relations in the wake of the pandemic.
Usually, contractors in rural districts act as middlemen to aggregate workers and send them to big cities. Workers often migrate with the help of a friend or relative in the same city. “But this system has no time for formal training and can only work for low-skilled jobs. So workers are trapped in a low-income, low-skilled jobs cycle,” said Narender Pani, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru.
Pani said even the one nation, one ration scheme may not help because it doesn’t change labour relations. “The ration card is used by the entire household, and migrants come individually. Plus, the system is digital so there can be many gaps,” he said.
Three, make cities more habitable and accessible for poor migrant workers. This is especially tricky given that migration patterns are based on workers finding cities too expensive to live in long-term. “Moreover, many contractors lost credibility last year when they failed to get workers back home. So that system is also collapsing,” said Pani.
When workers got back to their villages, many found no source of income and poor agricultural returns forced them to go back to cities after a few months. “At the root of the crisis was an intertwined agrarian and urban crisis. Our cities are becoming more and more exclusionary…one response is to think about rental housing and other urban social-welfare programs that can provide some safety nets for informal workers in cities,” said Balakrishnan.
Of course, this doesn’t even touch the strain put on workers who spend months away from their families, the mental health impact of being poorly paid and working in inhospitable conditions and the growing desperation of vulnerable labourers who are women or come from marginalised castes, and are now pitted against each other for meagre rural resources in a ravaged rural economy.
“There are pressure points emerging all over. We cannot get back to the old system,” said Pani.