Bengaluru: With the government extending the nationwide lockdown until May 3, 2020, millions of migrant workers remain in financial, physical and emotional distress. This came through graphically in the chaotic scenes near a railway station in Mumbai on Tuesday, shortly after the Prime Minister’s announcement, as thousands of workers gathered, some demanding food, others transport to their villages. Migrant workers in Surat, who have been protesting since the lockdown began, demanding to be sent home, also renewed their protests. As IndiaSpend has reported, the ongoing lockdown to contain COVID-19 has thrown the lives and livelihoods of millions of such workers into disarray.

According to a home ministry statement on April 5, 2020, some 1.25 million inter-state migrants are lodged in 27,661 relief camps and shelters, 87% state-run and the rest operated by NGOs. However, many more are not in camps. Both inter- and intra-state migrants are stranded without work, with rapidly dwindling resources, at their places of work or en route to their homes in rural areas. Those who managed to walk home are confronting both stigma (for fear they may be infected with COVID-19) and joblessness, while the village economy is reeling from the abrupt loss of remittances.

A new report released on April 15, 2020, and based on a survey of more than 11,000 workers by Stranded Workers Action Network, a volunteer group, said that about 50% only had rations left for less than one person, 74% had less than Rs 300 left, and 89% had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. Most of them were daily wage factory/construction workers. The group was formed to attend to distress calls from migrant workers after the lockdown.

India is estimated to have some 120 million rural-to-urban migrant workers. Nearly 92% of the 61 million jobs created over the 22 years post liberalisation in 1991 have been informal. Moreover, joblessness has risen sharply in recent years.

In an interview with IndiaSpend, Benoy Peter, an expert on internal migration and executive director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, a Kerala-based non-profit, says this is the time for India to show that it cares about its migrant workers and to immediately take measures such as ensuring food and decent living conditions, testing for COVID-19, and explaining properly to workers in their own language the intricacies of this virus. He argues that as the lockdown lifts, state governments should try to persuade migrant workers, without coercion, and by understanding their grievances and protecting their livelihoods, to stay back in urban centres so as to help revive both the urban and rural economies, to ensure better medical care for themselves in the event that they are infected with the virus, and to prevent COVID-19 contagion in rural areas.

“Urban areas,” he says, “must show their preparedness to help them stay back and work.” Peter also talks about the catastrophic impact of the lockdown on the informal economy, the future challenges it poses for the millions of inter- and intra-state migrants, and the strengths and drawbacks of Kerala’s response to the migrant worker crisis set off by the lockdown.

Peter, 44, leads a consortium of organisations in India as a contractor to the International Labour Organization for preparing a policy paper on internal labour migration in India. He was a member of a working group on Labour Migration to Kerala formed by the Kerala State Planning Board for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2017-2022). He was also part of an expert panel providing technical support to the fourth administrative reforms commission in refining welfare laws for marginalised populations in Kerala.

Edited excerpts:

The Prime Minister has been blamed for not addressing the migrant crisis in his address to the nation on April 14. There have been protests by migrant workers, and riots, in different parts of the country, including in Mumbai and Surat. Your thoughts?

He may not have directly addressed the issue, but he acknowledged that people have been affected [by the lockdown]. Otherwise he would have to take the blame.

Essentially, we were not prepared for the lockdown, and I do not think that people imagined so many migrants existed in urban centres without any support. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, which is a rich urban body, reached out to NGOs to provide food. They realised that what happened in Surat could happen in Ahmedabad.

As a policy issue, internal migration is neglected. Now it has become visible and shocking to mainstream India.

Why were migrants overlooked?

They make the city run but are invisible to the system because there is not enough data on them and they are not part of the local political economy. Therefore, local elected representatives do not feel responsible for them. State governments and urban local bodies were not prepared for the situation.

[Even in normal times], most migrants have poor access to social welfare measures or social protection like healthcare or the public distribution system. Their dignity is compromised when they try to avail of government services.

Internal migration is not a policy priority in India. The estimates [of its scale] vary from 10 million to 150 million, which itself shows a lack of clarity. There are migrants who move for work permanently--usually, from educated and more privileged groups--and then there are those on the fringes. The latter migrate temporarily, usually forced to do so by lack of development or agrarian distress. Labour migration corridors from rural areas to centres like Delhi or Mumbai represent coping strategies for the rural poor.

But isn't it the responsibility of states to take care of migrants right now? Are migrants the unwitting casualty in a state-Centre tussle?

No, I do not think this is the case. The [central] home ministry, which is in charge of disaster management, has issued directions to use the state disaster relief fund to help migrant workers. NITI Aayog [the Centre’s policy think-tank] has written to NGOs that are part of its portal to work with the government. They need NGOs. The government got overwhelmed. The development sector has a role, which was underplayed.

Migrants are not an unwitting casualty. Any government that is serious about the economy knows that migrants play a role in our economy. There are more than 3.5 million people [migrants] in Kerala, and if they go back to their homes, how will the construction sector survive? States may not have enough resources and were not prepared.

What five steps could be taken right now to alleviate the distress migrants are undergoing?

Internal migrant labourers, most of them in the informal sector, contribute to nearly 10% of India’s GDP [gross domestic product]. This is the time to show to them that we care about them.

Until the end of the lockdown, we need to ensure that they have food and shelter, and that their health problems are addressed. We need to decongest their living facilities wherever required. Then, there are vulnerable groups within migrant groups like the elderly, those with disabilities and pregnant women, whose needs must be met.

We need active screening of workers using mobile medical units, and must plan and prepare to isolate workers if they are detected with COVID-19. Finally, we need to inform them about the disease in their own language and ensure that they understand it properly.

Governments or local authorities need to go to migrant workers and understand their grievances, and explain to them what can and cannot be done under the present circumstances.

What steps do you suggest once the lockdown is lifted, albeit gradually? This is the time for migrants to return home for the harvest season, yet contagion is a real worry, and many migrants may be in dire need of employment and money.

We need to mentally prepare them to stay back once the lockdown lifts so that they will be able to get back to work. Only if they work can their families receive money, which then gets circulated in the economy, including the village economy. The impact of this crisis on villages will be reduced if people can stay back and work in urban areas.

This will also help urban economies revive. The migrants will get better health facilities and treatment in cities than in villages, and most importantly, there is a smaller chance of infection travelling from a COVID-19 hotspot to a village. There are several migrants who would want to stay back in cities [and earn] because they owe money to a local money-lender or other local institutions.

At the same time, we need to accept that it is their right to go back and there should be no coercion. Urban areas must show preparedness to help them stay and work.

Had state governments been informed in advance of the March 25 lockdown, would they have been better prepared for a situation of millions of migrants trying to get back home?

A lockdown was inevitable. Our health infrastructure is concentrated in urban centres. If COVID-19 reaches rural India [on a huge scale] it will be catastrophic. The only way of arresting the spread of the pandemic was through prevention and by insulating rural areas.

However, the decision was taken without enough preparation. The four-hour notice may have been strategic, but it also showed how badly prepared we were for the problems that the poor and marginalised are now facing. Timely measures were not taken at the Centre and in the states to accomodate people in shelters and provide them food. The system [of governance] should have been especially sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable.

Some have commented on how differently migrant workers were treated from NRIs, who were given more time to come home before the lockdown. Has the working class been left to bear the brunt of the pandemic in a country where over 90% of the workforce is in the informal sector?

Migration is a fundamental right for citizens. Indians are allowed to travel, work and reside in any part of the country. [But] there has always been class discrimination. There are international and internal migrants. The latter belong to socially and economically disadvantaged groups like adivasis, dalits or religious minorities.

In every disaster, the marginalised are the most affected, among them migrant workers and refugees. Even within the informal sector, there are several vulnerable groups. If you are native or a local working in the informal sector, there are more resources at your disposal, including support from local governments, than for a rickshaw-puller in Delhi who is from Bihar, or nomadic groups selling wares in the city. A Rohingya refugee [from Myanmar] may be worse off than even a migrant worker.

They [dalits, adivasis, religious minorities] are not just marginalised in the cities, but also in villages. This lockdown has made these historically invisible internal migrants--such as urban workers and seasonal labourers--visible to mainstream India and their plight is out in the open for everyone to see.

How would you compare the lockdown to demonetisation, which also impacted workers in the informal sector, many of whom are migrants?

I fear that the impact of the lockdown will be much worse than that of demonetisation. Demonetisation took away cash and resulted in the stagnation of the economy, thereby affecting livelihoods. Demonetisation led to a drop in total production in the economy. The informal sector was severely affected due to it, but the formal sector was relatively better off.

The lockdown has an immediate and direct impact on livelihoods, and will have long-term impact on everyone, particularly migrant workers. Reduction in remittances [due to the lockdown and lack of employment and wages] will not only impact migrant households, but the entire village economy, because it depends on remittances from migrants, as I said earlier. There could even be acute malnutrition and starvation deaths. Besides, if there is wide-scale transmission of COVID-19 in rural areas, it will have a devastating impact. It could substantially increase rural mortality rates.

For industry, there will be some cushion [from the government], but imagine the impact on those without access to the public distribution system, those without a bank account or insurance, or even those who did not even know what happened [when the lockdown was announced] because they had limited access to information.

How do you look at the massive movements of people in the past few days?

There are three kinds of migrants now, due to the lockdown: those who have reached home, those who are still in the places where they work, and those who are in between, unable to reach their homes. Those stuck in between are in an unfamiliar place, largely without help and resources like money or food. Those who are still in the places where they work, at least know their surroundings and know where to access essentials like food and healthcare, but are not receiving wages. And those who have managed to get home after the lockdown are facing stigma. Being jobless, they may have to borrow from money-lenders at exorbitant interest rates.

China locked down millions in Wuhan. But Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, did not do so, and nor did Singapore initially, though it has done so now. India has enforced the largest and perhaps strictest lockdown in the world. How do you assess these varying approaches to tackling a pandemic?

It is a sum total of human development, not just population. Sweden, Netherlands and Singapore are at a higher level of human development. China and India are the most populous countries in the world, and have among the largest migrant populations living abroad.

India [followed by China] receives the highest foreign remittances, and migration is a way of life. There are even people from Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh who work as labourers abroad.

Any change in migration [of China and India] can be felt in the world, though internal migration [in India] is higher--manifold--than international migration. Given such a large number of migrants, both China and India would have had limited control over the dissemination of infection without a lockdown.

How has Kerala, which is estimated to have nearly 4 million inter-state migrant workers (in 2017), handled the volatile situation after the lockdown was announced, with migrants desperate to go home?

Kerala was probably better prepared for the lockdown compared to other states. There is a much more resilient and decentralised response this time, compared to the state’s response to the 2018 floods and landslides. Disaster management in Kerala comes under the revenue department, which has a weak system at the grassroots level, and local self-governments (LSGs) had a limited role. This time, the LSGs are leading the interventions.

LSGs are very grounded, with gender-balanced political representation from the locality, and know the area well. Primary health clinics, schools, anganwadis and animal husbandry are all under the LSGs, which helps in coordination. Learning from the floods [in August 2018], the government has understood that mass [relief] interventions must be under LSGs.

Are there any drawbacks?

Even in Kerala, migrant workers are experiencing political exclusion. The sensitivity that exists at the state level (ministers and senior bureaucrats) is not necessarily evident at the grassroots. The LSGs need to be sensitised to a greater degree about the problems of migrant workers so that there is no scope for xenophobia.

In Kerala, there are seven pockets where thousands of migrant workers live together. Different kinds of workers require different treatment. There are workers who are attached to employers and others who are foot-loose. Employers are expected to take care of their workers, but this is not the case with foot-loose workers. They have no one to turn to other than the government. Until recently, food distribution was not adequate, and there was a lack of clarity in instructions from the state government to the LSGs. Some LSGs made house-owners responsible for providing them with food. This is not feasible because it is not possible to feed so many people in a house (which often is the case with migrant workers) three times a day.

The issue in Kottayam [where migrant workers defied the lockdown and demanded food and transport back to their native places] received attention in the media. In responding to it, the government appointed a police officer as a nodal officer though it was not [intrinsically] a law and order problem. It should ideally have been managed by the social justice department, labour department and the LSG department.

Further, some of the assurances given to migrants are creating a negative effect because the locals feel that these workers are being prioritised at a time when everyone is distressed and frustrated due to the lockdown. So resentment is being expressed on social media against migrant workers.

Despite all this, at a policy level, at least on paper, Kerala is sensitive to the requirements of migrant workers. However, by calling them “guest workers”, the government seems to be reminding them to leave after their work is finished, which is discriminatory. They have the right to be here.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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