ABCD of workers’ migration
A popular saying is that “the true character of a person is often revealed in the times of crisis”. The crisis tests intellect, common sense, resolve, grit, emotions, beliefs, etc. of people, besides highlighting their strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This applies mutatis mutandis to various organizations and systems also.
The present crisis, for example, has highlighted the strong character of the common people of India who are usually financially insecure (poor), less educated (or illiterate), religious (and superstitious), and oppressed. Often derided by the elite as dirty and non-compliant, these people have shown amazing resilience and grit. They have bore the brunt of economic consequences of the disease; faced cruel apathy of the administration & state (and in some cases employers also); have been most vulnerable to fatalities due to COVID-19 infections; and still managed to stay peaceful and non-violent.
Thousands of them received animal like treatment from administration and law enforcement agencies. Millions of them have walked hundreds of miles on highways and rail tracks, in scorching heat with infants, old, infirm and sick family members, sometimes going without food for hours. Some accidents causing death of many migrant workers have been reported on the media. However, many deaths due to heat, starvation, fatigue, infirmities and other curable diseases may go unreported.
The heart rending pictures of their painful journey back home have been widely shared and mourned in media. The rhetoric on TV channels and social media did spur the politicians into action, but unfortunately the action on the ground has been abysmally inadequate and apathetic.
Our team traveled to some highways and towns of UP, one of the largest destination of the migrant workers returning back, to assess the extent of the problems and its socio-economic impacts. I would like to share some key takeaways as follows:
1. It is estimated that more than 10 million migrants may eventually return home to the states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, MP, Odisha, West Bengal and Rajasthan. These workers are returning from relatively developed states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Delhi and Haryana.
It is expected that once the lockdown is lifted fully, significantly larger number of migrant workers may seek to return home. Most of these workers are unskilled or semi skilled; though it may include sizable number of skilled workers also.
2. The central and state governments appear to have completely ignored these workers in their planning for the lockdown. No thought was spared for their survival and sustenance in a prolonged lockdown scenario. This adequately highlights the pseudo feudal structure of our governance system (a key weakness) and absolute mediocrity of our administrative machinery (a key vulnerability). The Chief Minister of UP has emerged as most popular politicians insofar as handling of migrant workers is concerned. Even though he started a little late and is not supported ably by the administration and bureaucracy, he still has managed to convey the message that he cares.
3. The innocent, helpless, scared, hungry and tired migrant workers have been treated worse than animals. Many states have treated them as if they were illegal intruders from some foreign country. This highlights that our economic and governance model may still be colonial in nature.
4. A significant number of migrants on roads we spoke to confided in us that they were planning to return home since past few years, but were not able to muster enough courage. They believe that with so many government schemes operative, two square meals with dignity & freedom is not a problem in villages. They find it better than living in urban slums like insects.
5. After speaking with over 900 migrant workers on road, we can say with some confidence that:
(i) A large number of migrant workers returning home may not easily go back to their previous place of work. Many of them may in fact never leave their homes for work. There could be at least the following five consequences of this trend:
(a) Businesses, especially construction and textile, may be forced to invest more in technology and automation. Household relying on domestic worker may also be forced to invest in home automation for household chores.
(b) Many labor intensive businesses like textile may have to either relocate their manufacturing units in the areas where adequate number of local labor is available.
(c) The pressure on civic infrastructure in large cities and railways may ease. The multibillion rupees remittance industry may be a key loser.
(d) The home states of these workers may be incentivized/forced to invest in industrial infrastructure and seek private investments to create ample employment opportunities close to home. This may be a big fillip to the “self reliant” India mission. Agro processing is one industry that may see exponential investment and growth.
(e) The regional imbalances in India may gradually bridge, if the home states seize this opportunity and develop a good industrial infrastructure.
(ii) The Agony, sense of Betrayal, Confusion and Disillusionment (ABCD) is ideally a fertile ground for emergence of communist movements. Given the democratic communist parties in India are totally marginalized, the fear is that the violent Naxal movement may spread out of the forests of central India. A strong strategic initiative to prevent such eventuality must be taken immediately. The forthcoming election in Bihar may display some reflections of this fear. Watch out for that closely.
(iii) The expectation from, and reliance on, the government’s cash, food and fuel provisions shall rise materially, especially in the rural and semi urban areas. The fiscal pressures may remain elevated for many years to come.
(iv) The pressure on civic and social infrastructure of villages and semi rural (or semi urban) areas shall rise significantly. Administration need to gear up for this well in advance, otherwise we may have garbage, filth, and disease everywhere.
(v) The migrant workers returning home after spending many years in large cities are carrying an entirely different culture with them. On the positive side we may see improvement in religious and superstitious practices. However, on the other side, we may see many indulgences creeping in the simple village life style.