Two years since Covid lockdown: What migrant crisis taught us | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Two years since Covid lockdown: What migrant crisis taught us

Mar 24, 2022 11:24 AM IST

At the time, many worried that migrant workers would carry the virus from cities to the countryside but with the exception of some districts, there was no major connection between the exodus and a spike in infection.

Mohammad Saiyub. Jyoti Kumari. Rampukar Pandit. For about three months in the summer of 2020, these people became household names in the most tragic way. They, along with millions of other people who were stranded in unfamiliar cities thousands of kilometres from their hometowns and villages, brought home to policymakers and middle-class India the crushing reality of migrant workers.

A group of migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh walk along NH-24 (near Nizamuddin Bridge) to Sarai Kale Khan Bus stand in New Delhi, amid the Covid-induced nationwide lockdown, on March 29, 2020. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT photo) PREMIUM
A group of migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh walk along NH-24 (near Nizamuddin Bridge) to Sarai Kale Khan Bus stand in New Delhi, amid the Covid-induced nationwide lockdown, on March 29, 2020. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT photo)

The government’s decision to lock the country down at four hours’ notice and the failure of central, state and city administrations to take into account hundreds of thousands of workers – who formed the backbone of local economies but received little support from welfare schemes and remained invisible to policymakers – meant that they were stuck in hostile neighbourhoods with their sources of income gone, their food running out and their shelters suddenly rendered unaffordable. A still-mystery virus was stalking the air, the government was sounding repeated warnings to people to stay put in their homes, but the fear of starving in a city with few friendly faces and no immediate hope of normalcy took hold.

In 72 hours, the first migrants started appearing on the highways linking India’s economic powerhouses to its rural hinterlands that act as a sink for cheap and young labour. Groups of men, young couples with toddlers in tow, and families walked for days, sometimes collapsing along the side of highways for want of food or water. But even in the face of the biggest migration of people since the horrors of Partition, government response faltered. Buses were started, then stopped, then started again. Some state governments picked up migrants, some didn’t. Trains were started only in May.

Rations were often delayed, and inhuman treatment meted out to migrants when they reached their destinations – they were locked up in shelters with barely any amenities, or hosed down with chemicals by the side of the road or thrashed by policemen imperiously seeking to impose pandemic restrictions on the most vulnerable – underlining an absence of empathy. If the initial days of the pandemic response was a reminder of how powerful the government was – it was deciding when you could step out of the home, for how long, to which places, and in what manner you could travel – the migrant crisis simultaneously showed gaps in governance and a lack of imagination on the part of policymakers.

Over weeks, they walked for miles, took buses, hitched rides on trucks, and finally took trains back to their countryside home, their plight spotlighting the perils and precarity of economic migration in India. 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.

Their plight has, since then, resulted in schemes for migrant workers, a database with their details, the enforcement of the one-nation-one-ration programme, even plans to build low cost housing for them in large industrial hubs -- but back in early 2020, none of this was in place.

The arduous journey home

Some, like Jyoti Kumari, made it back home despite the odds. A 17-year-old Dalit girl, Kumari pedalled her purple bicycle across the length of the Gangetic Plains from Gurugram to Darbhanga district in Bihar, with her injured father in tow. On May 8, Kumari jumped on her cycle, put her injured father, e-rickshaw driver Mohan Paswan, on the carrier seat and started pedalling from Gurugram. Their reason to leave was simple: their food was fast dwindling due to the lockdown. With the help of other migrant workers, truck drivers, and food and shelter from local people along the way, they reached their village on May 17. Her journey briefly made her an international star, which did little to improve their economic impoverishment but helped mitigate somewhat the casteist bias her family battled every day.

Some, like Rampukar Pandit, managed to make it back home but couldn’t stave off disaster from ravaging their families. A 47-year-old construction worker, Pandit broke down near Delhi’s Nizamuddin bridge while talking to his wife on the phone – a photo of his tear-streaked face encapsulating the calamity that had befallen millions. He was stranded in the Capital when the lockdown was clamped, but couldn’t control himself when in early May, his wife told him that their youngest son was grievously ill. He tried and failed to get out of the city several times. By the time he reached home, his son was dead.

And then, there were many like Mohammad Saiyub, whose photo cradling his dying best friend in his arms by the side of a highway brought home the horrors of the pandemic. A 23-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh, Saiyub and Amrit Kumar had moved away from Basti district to Surat in search of better fortunes. They shared a cramped room in a textile unit which suddenly became unaffordable during the lockdown. They jumped on a truck in their quest to get home but on the way, Kumar got sick. Worried that he had contracted the dreaded virus, other passengers dumped him. Kumar was eventually taken to hospital but died. In the absence of government data on all-cause mortality, it may never be known how many migrant workers perished on their journeys home.

At the time, many worried that migrant workers would carry the virus from cities to the countryside but with the exception of some districts, there was no major connection between the exodus and a spike in infection. It remains unclear whether this was due to inadequate testing, effective government screening and quarantining, or the relatively youth of many workers.

Larger problems of migrants in focus

The phenomenon of people migrating from states in the east and north to the west and south in search of jobs and more secure economic futures is a story as old as independent India. It exploded after the economy was unlocked in 1991 – booming cities and a newly affluent middle class needed houses and malls and offices, and the vast countryside was a ready sink of cheap and young labour. Families often didn’t have the economic wherewithal to migrate at once, so using caste and community networks, the men came first, and then, if feasible, the women and families. The exodus showed that such migration was not without its costs. For the first time, the concerns of poor workers were filtering into the drawing rooms and dinner tables of the rich and powerful.

It laid bare what Sai Balakrishnan, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, terms as the spatial rift of India’s unequal development – where industries and economic opportunities are bunched up in the country’s west and south. It showed that while cities were dependent on migrant labour for basic services, they had created little incentives to ease the precarity of the vulnerable labourers. That few migrant workers considered staying back in their place of work showed that these cities were not home to them due to uncertainties about food, shelter and health care. And, it showed the continued relevance of catch-all job guarantee programmes in keeping families afloat in difficult times.

The crisis catalysed some major policy changes. Primary among them was the one-nation-one-ration card, which allows holders to draw benefits from any fair-price shop in the country regardless of home state, which has now been made functional in almost all parts of the country. The government has also announced the e-shram card, under which cash will be disbursed and coverage for schemes will be provided to unorganised sector workers.

The government also pointed out that it ran more than 4,000 trains to bring workers home, announced relief under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), which included 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 in the country’s most backward districts. And, it initiated a survey of migrant workers to plug data gaps exposed during the pandemic.

Two years on, with 96% of the population over the age of 14 vaccinated (16% partly and 80% fully) , cases at a 22-month low, the economy nearly back at pre-pandemic levels and life mostly normal, the exodus that jolted India is, in some ways, a fading memory. Most migrant labourers who left for their homes in 2020 are back, due to a mix of economic compulsions and hopes of a better life than what their villages can offer. Yet, the infrastructure and social fabric of our cities are far from supportive, and rise in nativist sentiment stoked by political parties – a prime example of this are the domicile laws for jobs that several states have enacted – show that the sympathy and concern elicited during the exodus may have been short lived. The migrant flight might now be history but the lessons it imparted on empathy, governance, welfare nets and the nature of our cities remain key to battling the pandemic and taking the country forward.

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