On March 26, when the Indian government imposed a lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, a mass exodus of migrant workers immediately left the nation’s cities for their rural homes. Millions of these workers, who had previously relied on minimum daily wage in informal working arrangements, were suddenly rendered jobless as the cities' shut down.
This image of hundreds of thousands of migrants returning to their homes under extreme conditions, often walking under the midday sun or through poorly arranged transportation, is now emblematic of the most severe fallout of the Indian lockdown. Many did not survive the ordeal.
Even though this reverse migration is still continuing, and despite escalating cases of coronavirus, Indian businesses are now attempting to “unlock” the economy. But to do so, they need to bring back the very people they had shut doors on during the lockdown.
"In this easing up of the lockdown, the people who forced the migrants to go back home, are now waking up to the fact that once the operations begin, the same labour force is what’s going to start producing,” Trinanjan Radhakrishnan, a development expert who works with Oxfam India, told VICE.
"It’s ironic, and a bit of natural justice because even if you think of business profitability, paying the existing workers for the two months’ shutdown and retaining them would have been better than trying to restart production with a new workforce.”
On June 9, a construction company from Hyderabad, in the south Indian state of Telangana, brought 1,000 workers back from their homes in the eastern state of Bihar by a fully-paid train journey so that they could resume construction work. Another manufacturing firm in the northern state of Punjab flew in workers from Bihar, while other employers are promising better wages and full work. At the same time, state governments are also scrambling to get migrants back to restart the economy. A ministerial panel, led by the Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, is currently pushing recommendations to encourage migrant workers to return to the cities.
A drastic step came last month, when the south Indian state of Karnataka halted special trains meant to ferry migrants back to their home states. The state government wanted the migrants to get back to work, but the move implied forced labour. It was criticised, and eventually revoked. But it laid bare the economic stresses of reverse migration: one study estimates a shortfall of 40-50 percent of blue-collar workers in cities over the next few months.
The scale of the migration caused by the Indian lockdowns—often called the strictest and harshest in the world—is still unknown. In Mumbai, around 800,000 (out of an estimated million) migrants were estimated to have gone home. In Delhi, roughly 65,000 migrants registered with the government to be sent home in state-sponsored transport. These are the top two cities with the highest population of inter-state migrants in India, and yet these numbers do not account for the millions who walked.
Some compare this displacement to the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan, a violent event that displaced around 15 million people. With the lockdown, the Chief Labour Commissioner, which falls under the Government of India’s Ministry of Labour and Employment, controversially estimated a displacement of 2.6 million migrants, while some migration experts and economists cite a range of between 22 million and 30 million displaced people. A World Bank report estimates this number to be a "large proportion" of the country's nearly 40 million internal migrants—which, in itself, is just over 0.5 percent of the world’s population, or the total population of Afghanistan.
"Policymakers don’t think about the unorganised sector at all, and this displacement is proof of that,” Arun Kumar, a senior economist and professor based out of Delhi, told VICE. “In my estimate, around 200 million Indians lost employment under the lockdown. The government did not come to support them by giving them food. The lockdown failed because of the fact that people were forced to migrate in the absence of any support. Now, the virus has spread to the villages.”
VICE also contacted the office of Chief Labour Commissioner who declined to comment.
Nevertheless, the prospects of going back to work are appealing to many because of joblessness back home. According to a study, one in every four people in rural India are unemployed under lockdown.
VICE spoke to Santosh Kumar, a migrant worker in Bihar—a state that has seen a return of 2.2 million migrants under lockdown—who is now contemplating returning to Hyderabad, where he ran a small snack stall. “Of course I will go. Here, there is no job. The rural employment scheme (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA, which guarantees the right to work to Indian labourers) gives INR 250 (approx US$3.3) per day. It’s not enough,” he said.
“Here, I have managed to earn only around INR 5,000-6,000 (approx US$ 66-79) over the last two months. I lived in Hyderabad for nine years, and I was saving INR 1,000-1,200 (approx US$13-16) every day. I was earning INR 4,000-4,500 (approx US$53-60) everyday. When this virus ends and everyone goes back, so will I.”
Mukesh Goswami, joint secretary of Rajasthan Unorganised Labour Union, told VICE that in the Northern state of Rajasthan, around 200,000 returning migrant workers got job cards to work under the MGNREGA. But despite this, many who earned more than INR15,000 (approx US$200) want to return to cities to regain that level of livelihood. “They’re the semi-skilled or skilled workers. Despite the harrowing experience of coming back home, they want to earn good money again because here, it’s just not enough,” he said. He added that some companies in the Rajasthani cities of Neemrana and Alwar paid a monthly token amount of INR2,500 (approx US$33) to make sure their migrant employees came back.
Adding to these workers’ woes is the fact that some Indian states want to suspend labour laws that are already facing criticism for being discriminatory, employer-friendly and undermining workers’ rights. In May, during a video conference meeting with the Labour Ministry, several industry bodies asked the government to suspend labour laws for two-three years to "help industry come out of the present crisis.” In response, the country’s labour minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar stated that they were "sympathetic to the requirements of the industry and would try to provide all possible help for revival of industry and reopening of the economy.”
As the trend of employers wooing their workers back to work picks up, it may not provide a complete picture of how the crisis is manifesting during the reopening of businesses. The Delhi-based economist Kumar told VICE that the trend was too "minuscule” to be taken seriously. “Many businesses are failing since their revenue has fallen drastically. But they can’t restart if the demand is not there,” he said. “Demand has declined because salaries and wages have been cut and there are job losses even in the organised sector. Plus there’s social distancing at work, transportation, etc, so full production is not feasible. Out of a few million, maybe thousands will come back, but that doesn’t mean a lot of them will. It’s ambitious to think they will all go back to work in cities.”
Even for those who do return, the resumption of work might just overshadow the enormity of the country’s migration crisis. “We’ve gone back to talking about GDP and growth rates, but about 400 million Indians who are being pushed deeper into poverty due to the lockdown,” said Radhakrishnan “These numbers should shake us more than the percentage decline in the manufacturing sector. That’s important, too, but so is the human face of the economy.”
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UPDATE 12/06/2020: A previous version of the article cited a World Bank report estimating the number of displaced migrants to be nearly 40 million. We have now updated our piece to reflect the accuracy of the report, which states that a "large proportion" of the country's nearly 40 million internal migrant population was displaced. We regret the error.