COVID-19 is a dilemma between economics and emotions, full of excitement, sympathy, and benevolence. For a billion-plus population with a limited health infrastructure, India until now has bestowed a model to fight the pandemic. The government declared a nationwide lockdown to tame the unruly Coronavirus, the choice was lives over livelihoods. Containment and confinement are two critical approaches to fight the pandemic which has evolved a new order of perseverance. To mitigate the stress caused due to the lockdown, ringing bells, playing music, tik tok, unending WhatsApp messages resonated across the world. Despite access to mobiles, computers, televisions, family, and food, the lockdown has drained many. In contemporary society, one stays away from their homes for nearly 8-10 hours. If 6-8 hours of sleep is deducted from a day, people spend nearly 60 percent of their time outside their homes, at their workplace. Probably a migrant wage laborer spends more time outside his/her home than the office goers. Irrespective of who you are, what you are, where you are, the lockdown has reduced mobility within the four walls.
Every citizen is vulnerable to the containment and confinement strategy for COVID-19, however, daily wage migrants lie at the bottom of the pyramid. COVID-19 gave rise to a proactive response by the government, NGOs, Politicians, Samaritans to ease the lives of the marginalized. Broadly speaking the thrust of the current response strategy towards migrants is to fulfill their need for food. If lives and livelihoods are not seen as binary, repeated rush by migrants in Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, and other cities to return to their native towns or villages provides critical learning for policymakers. During COVID-19, migrants are facing four critical challenges due to lockdown. Government, political representatives, NGOs, and Samaritans have come forward to fulfill the biological need by providing food, while doctors and health staff are doing their best to save lives.
The size and scale of the pandemic and scattered migrants across cities make it difficult to provide the timely supply of food. According to a survey conducted between 8th April to 13th April 2020 by Stranded Workers Action Network, out of a total of 11,159 respondents, more than 90 percent did not receive rations from the government and 70 percent of them were left with no more than 200 rupees. The conditions that pushed migrants to break the lockdown and assemble in thousands at a bus or train station are certainly more than food and financial need. The physical consequences of lockdown on migrants living in the slum have squeezed their life to a room of maximum 8 by 10 feet with limited light and ventilation for an average of 5 members. The mental upshot of lockdown is a lack of certainty of an income and risk of becoming the victims of community spread of the Coronavirus. The least debated but critical consequence of lockdown is social paralysis caused due to a lack of physical interaction. These challenges are not limited to migrants, but by the virtue of being migrants, a notion to return home always makes their preparedness to thrive temporarily in cities. This condition of impermanence in the lives of migrants makes it easy to quit and migrate. For a government dealing with the infectious and uncontrollable virus, transporting migrants back home may be desired but entails a high risk of the spread of the virus to rural areas.
COVID-19 sets a new goal post for public policy and governance to address migration. The scale and scope for policy intervention for migrants need to evolve from the provisioning of public services. The COVID disaster in the backdrop of contemporary urbanization has reflected that the services of poor migrants are indispensable and instrumental to establish a sustainable city. Migration and migrants require treatment as industry policy. Data on migration suggests it to be a universal phenomenon. With the expected rise of urbanization, the phenomena will speed up and scale up in the coming future. A close look at the 64th round of National Sample Survey (2007-08) suggests that 28.3% of the workforce are migrants in India. Between 1991-2001 approximately 98 million people migrated from their last place of residence. It creates pressure on host cities and in the current policy framework often intervention is left to the host government.
According to the 2011 census, five states in India face the maximum pressure, these are; Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Haryana. They host up to 50% of the inter-state migrants. Mumbai and Delhi top the list with approximately 9.9 million migrants. While 50 % of these migrants come from four northern states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. Out of these, approximately 20.9 million come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Migration is not limited to inter-state movement, people migrate within states, from one district to another district or between two towns in a district. The growth in intra-district migration has increased from 33% to 45% between 1991-2001 and 2001-11, suggesting a preference of the people to find opportunities closer to their homes. Apart from inter and intrastate migration, there is a rise of urban to rural migration. In 2011, 30 million migrants moved to cities as compared to 20 million in 2001, while 10 million ( 6 million in 2001) returned to villages. This is a result of a tradeoff with income and social needs. The rise of rural livelihoods, coupled with increased vulnerability of the urban poor is an important player in promoting reverse migration.
In 2017, a working group on migration under the chairmanship of Partha Mukherjee under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, GoI, submitted their report with five broad categories of recommendations: employment; legal protection; service provisioning; housing and data collection and analysis. The report is very comprehensive, however, post-COVID-19, it may fall short to address future policy concerns. With the rise in speed and scale of reverse migration, the migration paradigm may shift its focus towards rural areas. The COVID-19 experience will certainly outweigh urban vulnerability, making a choice towards reverse migration favorable. This throws a new challenge for policymakers to create a cash economy in rural areas.
The untapped food processing, supply chain, downscaling technology in agriculture, and access to the virtual markets will be some of the concerns to be fulfilled. Overall, an urban to rural shift in migration may unfold two challenges; shortage of services provided by migrants in cities, and reorientation to establish rural and peri-urban infrastructure and services for promotion of rural economy. Irrespective of the challenges, COVID-19 provides an opportunity for policymakers to permanently turn around the lives and livelihoods of rural India.
Nothing can summarize the experience of the lockdown better than the words of Thomas Malthus. Way back in 1798, in a book titled, An essay on the principles of population, he wrote
‘the sorrows and distress in life form another class of excitements, which seems to be necessary to soften and humanize the heart, to awaken social sympathy, to generate virtues and to afford scope for the ample exertion of benevolence’. Post-COVID, once this emotion that excited the sympathy of millions subsides with the victory over a deadly pandemic, it would be time for policymakers to focus more on the circumstances in rural India that made lives and livelihoods of the migrants vulnerable.
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