Bengaluru: Over 50 days into the twice-extended lockdown, 800 special trains carried more than 1 million people including migrants from different parts of the country to their home states. These were a fraction of those who have been seeking to go home for weeks, often stranded without jobs, money or food. Thousands have been documented walking thousands of kilometres home, some even perishing on the way.

Two-thirds (67%) of workers reported having lost their jobs, noted early results of an Azim Premji University survey of 4,000 workers across 12 states--eight in 10 workers in urban areas and almost six in 10 workers in rural areas. The survey is being conducted since April 13, 2020, to gauge the impact of the lockdown on jobs, livelihoods and access to government relief schemes.

At least seven states--Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh--have extended work hours and relaxed labour laws in order to restart industrial activity affected due to the lockdown.

”We have no policy in India for returning migrants,” Varun Aggarwal, founder and lead, India Migration Now, a migration-focused research and advocacy organisation, tells IndiaSpend. Many of India’s estimated 120 million rural-to-urban migrant workers are still stranded in cities. The government must step in urgently since millions are determined to get home due to loss of livelihood, fear of contracting COVID-19, and lack of community support in destination states (i.e. those they have migrated to). Government must, he says, provide direct benefit transfers, and unemployment benefits, lasting at least one year, to rescue them from economic distress and boost a rural economy heavily dependent on remittances.

Schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) will fall far short of compensating them for what they earned before, as will any work they manage to pick up locally, he says. Source states (those from which migrants hail) must be put in charge of disbursing benefits, now and later, because migrants count for something in their home states, while they are politically marginalised in destination states.

India needs to start looking at migrants as stakeholders, Agarwal emphasises, rather than problems or “charity cases”, both in the short and long term. “In the long term we need to fix the lack of institutional structure and migration policy, both at the state level and the Centre,” he says. Destination states, he adds, must lift domicile restrictions that prevent migrants from accessing benefits.

Nearly 2 million migrants have registered to go back home from Gujarat, some of whom have already been put on trains. Other states, among them Kerala, Telangana and Maharashtra, are also sending migrant workers home. What will be the impact of this mammoth exercise on states with large migrant populations?

Migrants most affected by the lockdown are daily wagers and short-term cyclical migrants [those who migrate for less than six months]. They come from weaker socio-economic backgrounds and are completely ‘invisibilised’. There will be challenges in states that depend on these workers. During April and May, many usually go home to help with harvesting, but this time it is different because when states want to restart the economy, and need them, they might not be able to come back. There are also those who float from city to city (such as construction workers in the organised sector) working on different work sites, who will be unable to restart, adding to the labour shortages.

Long-term cyclical migrants such as domestic helpers, nannies and taxi drivers who have an informal employment structure are also affected. They are stranded due to COVID-19, and have not received wages. But unlike many others going home, they may have a job to go back to. However, they may be in containment areas [where travel restrictions apply], and not every migrant worker may go back.

Some sectors may see a boost in wages like nursing, healthcare and essential services. Moreover, in destination states, it is quite apparent that there is a shortage of workers in industries.

Most of the short-term wage workers will go home, and in the source states, the ones they hail from, the biggest worry is the loss of remittances--the money they send home. This will lead to a fall in consumption, and with so many migrants back home, there will also be a negative impact on local labour.

What do you think life will be like for migrants once they get out of quarantine?

As long as there is no vaccine that everyone can access and the zoning of areas (green, orange and red) continues, it will create uncertainty for employers and businesses, which will affect migrant labour. For example, in the construction sector, which is the largest employer of migrant labour after agriculture, most workers want to go back home. Their families are scared for them, and the workers are not receiving welfare support in the cities.

Builders want to restart work but the labour does not want to stay back, and [builders] are putting pressure on governments to ensure that they do not leave.

Migrants do not have a voice in destination states while they do have support from the community back home. However, we have no policy in India for returning migrants, both domestic and international, especially when they come back under such circumstances. There is a loss of wages. Until a vaccine is found, there will be a huge decline in migration due to the risks attached.

Since, as you have indicated, inter-state remittances support the village economy, workers will want to go back to their work destinations. What are the immediate and long-term measures that the government must implement to help migrants, keeping in mind that it is fighting an infectious disease?

The state has to take charge of the economy by providing some form of direct benefit transfer and unemployment benefits. India’s case is unique--while the government may allow migrants to go back home, it may not allow them to return to their work destinations, unless there is clarity on how the disease is evolving. Only China comes close to us in terms of the scale of internal migration, and they have a regulated system where people need a permit to go from rural to urban areas.

MGNREGA is no doubt an important tool [for providing income support] but it has deep flaws. Its wages will not substitute for what these workers usually earned. One of its goals was to minimise short-term distress migration, and in many states, it has not done so. There are three categories of households: one, migrant households who do not sign up for MGNREGA; two, those who migrate and also sign up; and finally, those that do not migrate and sign up. Now we may see more households registering. However, people migrate because the wages are not adequate, and wages at their destinations are higher. Further, the construction sector offers overtime pay [which further boosts wages].

How should income support be delivered until migration restarts?

State and central governments need to design income support well and also effectively deliver it, which they are failing at. The delivery of welfare and information about existing schemes is very poor. We need to analyse if the technological innovations of the last decade have been useful or have, in fact, been exclusionary. It is important to ensure that delivery of welfare at the panchayat level is done with knowledge of the fact that many of the households are migrant households. Also, the assumption we make with technology is that everyone has access to an Aadhaar card, smartphones, internet connectivity, etc., which is not the case.

We need to start looking at migrants as stakeholders, both in the long and short term. Until now they have been faceless, or considered a problem or a charity case. Migrants who return home tend to face discrimination, considering that many belong to marginalised groups like Dalits, adivasis and religious minorites. Now, [due to the fear that they might be carriers of] COVID-19, there is dual discrimination. In the short term the government needs to check this. In the long-term we need to fix the lack of institutional structure and migration policy, both at the state level and the Centre.

What is your view of existing policies relating to migrant workers and their treatment at the government level?

There is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979, which failed for various reasons. It was premised on contractors in every state registering workers they bring or send. That has not worked. Beyond this, there has been no law at the central level regarding migration.

There is a parliamentary standing committee on labour which is expected to consider migrant workers' issues and wages [in the context of labour codes], given that much of labour is migrant. Despite its existence, the government orders put out [since the lockdown began] show a lack of awareness of ground realities; for example, the Union Home Ministry’s order on April 19, 2020, noting that workers residing in relief or shelter camps who are registered could be engaged in work [manufacturing, industrial, MGNREGA, farming], despite workers wanting to return home. This shows a pattern that employers’ considerations are given more importance than workers. (There was violence in Hyderabad after workers demanded wages and permission to go home). The Centre had even blamed workers for trying to go home during the lockdown in its submission to the Supreme Court on a PIL [public interest litigation] filed on this issue.

What steps are needed to develop a policy?

Migrants are not just labour, there are children and families. Migration has multiple dimensions like labour, political inclusion, healthcare, and welfare, among others. But labour dominates our thinking, because it is the most prominent.

This is one of the reasons why we struggle to engage with governments and don’t know who to approach. There is no nodal agency. We need an enumeration exercise or a migration survey. At present, census data and data gathered by the NSSO [National Sample Survey Office] is outdated and incomplete.

States that send out large numbers of migrants, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, are showing a significant increase in COVID-19 cases. The Centre has asked state health authorities to screen and ensure home isolation for those returning home. How long can India afford quarantine given the loss of livelihood involved?

We were already in bad shape, economically, coming into this health crisis. In order to create livelihoods and job opportunities we need capital and governments need to be a source of capital. Some of the states that the migrants come from are fiscally poor to begin with.

The excess labour that will be available [as migrants return to their home states] may not find opportunities in agriculture, nor will construction be able to accommodate them. Migrants will need unemployment and other welfare benefits for the next year at least, until the urban economy restarts. Different states will be at different stages of containment, which will pose its own challenges to creating livelihood opportunities.

Globally, too, the International Labour Organization has asked governments to provide cash support to workers in the informal economy, who comprise more than 60% of the world's employed population.

Yes, income support is needed, but as I said earlier, this is also a good time to rethink our welfare delivery architecture, and address the problem of many schemes being announced and few beneficiaries coming out of them. State governments should be given more funds and allowed to decide [on disbursement]. This could facilitate inclusive decision-making at the local level.

For example, migrants who are construction workers are unaware of their entitlements under the Building and Other Constructions Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. We need to communicate policies to them in a language they understand, in the places where they work [and this is so far lacking]. Most states may have it on paper, but do not implement it. But at home, there is political inclusion, unlike at the destination. Thus, migrants are more likely to access welfare at home.

Are most of the short-term migrants intra-state or from other states?

The majority of migrants in India are intra-state. But their profile is different from that of inter-state workers. Most intra-state migrants are landless farmers or labourers who move from a low-producing area to a high-producing one.

Some inter-state migrants also move from one rural area to another, like Bihari agricultural workers in Punjab. But much of the short-term inter-state migration is from rural to urban. Distress-driven short-term cyclical migrants are the most visible aspect of the lockdown.

Is formalising more of the economy a viable option? How will that work, considering that 92% of the workforce is in the informal sector?

We need to be clear about what we mean by formalising the economy. Demonetisation was an attempt to formalise. It was a failure. If the point of formalising is demonising informal structures and forcing them to adopt ill-suited means, that is not the way forward. Informal enterprises (those not registered with the government) often have a better rate of returns [on investment] and are more sustainable.

Unpaid wages are a massive problem for migrant workers. In a network of contractors, there are no principal employers responsible for paying wages. In the construction sector, paying wages is the responsibility of the principal employer. But there is no clarity on who this is because there are many sub-contractors. There is plenty of [research] work that has been done on labour, and we need to utilise it to make informal labour safer for migrant workers. As per the 2007 data, 50% of short-term migrant labour were sourced through contractors, and the figure must have increased since. And, the decline of unions does not give workers a voice.

The main bargaining power a migrant worker has is the ability to migrate, which is restricted due to the pandemic.

How can local self government play a role? Have some states done better than others in terms of accomodating the needs of workers? If so, how?

Local government is important for the successful delivery of government programmes. Kerala is a master at it, and the state has the advantage of high literacy. This ensures that there are capable and responsive people at the grassroots. A robust local system is vital, and there is no other way of delivering benefits successfully.

Anganwadis [child care centres under the Integrated Child Development Services] are successful because they take care of community-level requirements. But when migrant families arrive at their work destinations, they are unable to use these options. The destination government needs to remove domicile restrictions to [enable migrants to] access welfare schemes like the public distribution system. There are also restrictions in housing schemes and public employment that need to be removed or modified to make them more inclusive. We need to improve delivery of these benefits, improve communication and the enumeration of migrants. Contractors need to be held accountable, to some extent, without regulating them.

While many migrants are going back to their homes, others want to come back to their workplaces. How can both of these aspects be streamlined in the months ahead?

As long as the borders are closed, there will be no movement. We will see a phase-by-phase return of people based on how governments react. There are clear barriers to anyone trying to migrate.

The scale at which the urban economy restarts is another issue. If we are in a recessionary economy, the demand for workers will be low. Some people may not have the ability to migrate, particularly longer distances, due to poverty.

Contractors who bring labour are also low on liquidity. Often, they pay an advance to workers as an incentive to migrate to the place of work. This network has been impacted due to COVID-19. Finally, we need to understand the trauma workers suffer when they are called carriers [of the disease]. Their movement is already restricted, and they are treated badly, due to which they may not trust their destination experiences anymore. We need to offer workers better housing and social security measures [healthcare, pensions] to attract them. For many of them, work is only a paycheck.

How do you assess the impact of this health crisis on international migration from India? Remittances are expected to fall by 20% globally, and by 22% in South Asia.

The government has an emigration policy and the embassies abroad have offices dedicated to workers due to which there has been some response [to the problems of Indian workers abroad]. The government is managing the logistics of bringing international migrants back better than for domestic workers. For the former, there is some sort of an institutional and enumerative framework.

We have learned from recruiting agencies in Gulf that many workers may get paid half their wages and some have had their contracts rescinded. Many of them will come back to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal. In these states, there are regions that experience more international migration than others, and they will now face the problem of remittances falling from both domestic and international sources.

Usually, workers in the construction sector come back [to India] and stay on for a year because they have adequate savings. Now, that will not be the case. They may not be able to go back to the Gulf any time soon. Other migrant worker corridors are opening up but if this lasts for a year or two, I wonder how they will cope. They are used to wage levels that are not available domestically.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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