The sudden imposition of the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic in the last week of March resulted in the loss of jobs for hundreds and thousands of migrant workers, most of them on daily wages. Having no means of work, many of them began to return to their native villages. This COVID-19-triggered reverse migration was the second largest mass migration in Indian history, after Partition, where more than 14 million people were displaced. The otherwise invisible lives and working conditions of migrants came to the country’s attention when the unforeseen lockdown forced them to travel long distances to their homes.
In order to understand the migration induced by COVID-19, it is important to understand the specifics of rural-urban migration. Circular migration constitutes the majority of rural-urban migration and involves independent male members of rural households who migrate to urban areas while maintaining strong links with their villages and towns of origin. They send money home and often spend a few months, especially during harvest season, in their home country.
There are various studies that have analyzed the reasons for rural-urban migration, one by Kunal Keshir and RB Bhagat stated that people migrate due to poverty, inequality (in access to land) and discrimination, as well as the glamor of city life consisting of better resources such as livelihoods, education, housing and health facilities.
In a study of internal migrants in Delhi, Harsh Mander and Gayatri Sahgal find evidence of ‘distress migration’, that is, migration that takes place due to extreme impoverishment that leaves the individual or family with no choice but to migrate in search of livelihood.
Studies have shown that the rural exodus causes significant social and economic costs in urban areas, such as higher unemployment rate, increased environmental costs, limited resources and unacceptable living conditions. In addition, the movement of able-bodied, young and perhaps more educated people from rural areas to urban centers results in an imbalance in the human resources needed for rural development. This unbalanced development between rural and urban areas means that the former are often deprived of resources such as funds and lack incentives from the government and private actors to develop infrastructure.
However, the same was found to be misleading in a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The report says it is poor urban infrastructure and planning that is causing urban housing shortages, traffic jams, overcrowding and lower living standards in urban areas. When urban governance and policies respond to migration and migrants in a hostile manner, this leads to push migrants into low-income informal residences and such policies lead to stigma and prejudices regarding slums, slum dwellers and others. migrants, especially in a city like Mumbai. .
Proponents of reverse migration often argue that if policy makers aim to improve urban areas, it is relevant that they focus on improving rural infrastructure to decongest cities. Using official data from the Ministry of Rural Development, a study found that there had been an improvement in wages and the number of working days offered under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) during the COVID-19 containment in Rajasthan. The program also saw an increase in labor demand in May and June. There were up to 24.2 million rural households asking for work in August 2020, which is a 66% increase from August 2019. This is the highest level of demand for MGNREGS since 2013 -14, which has allowed many districts to exceed their annual MGNREGS job creation. targets.
In addition, official data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare showed a 21% increase in seedlings of Kharif crops across India, compared to the same period last year, as well as ‘an increase in the area of ââother crops. The uncertainty of the pandemic prompted even the smallest landowners to cultivate their land to earn, some of whom also addressed the labor shortages that rural India faced due to economic migration to the provinces. cities. Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) program, the facilitation of cash transfers has also catalyzed the interest of many migrant farmers in agriculture. Several economists have said that an increase in the harvest will automatically lead to an increase in farmers’ incomes, leading to an increase in consumption. It will also improve the consumption of everyday consumer goods, motorcycles, tractors and this increase in consumption is likely to revive the national economy.
The other side of the coin
However, the flip side of reverse migration was that the highly contagious virus also began to spread in rural India. Contrary to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations of one qualified physician per 1,000 population, India has one qualified physician per 1,404 population. With over 50% of the population living in rural areas and a highly uneven distribution of qualified doctors across rural and urban landscapes, most rural communities depend on untrained health workers without formal medical training. It is important to expand the pool of qualified physicians accessible to the rural population and to make careful use of informal health practitioners, as they are more trusted than trained health professionals, especially where they exist. a contagion stigma linked to the virus.
Since India spends less than 1.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare, it is important to improve healthcare spending, especially in rural areas. Lessons learned from a national conference at the World Conference on Rural Health suggest that a focus on family-centered primary health care centers, as well as state-funded health insurance schemes and training of health professionals would lead to better health outcomes in rural areas.
The pandemic-induced reverse migration has offered the government the opportunity to focus on building rural infrastructure with better land policies – a study affirms the narrative that the agricultural sector kept the rural economy afloat during the pandemic. Better livelihood opportunities and effective rural governance are also essential elements of rural infrastructure. However, the situation resulted in the return of unused rural funds and the return of workers to cities, according to a rapid assessment survey.
In addition to the other social protection programs launched during the lockdown, the government also launched a special rural employment and public works program called Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA) for returning migrants. This program prioritized land work under MGNREGS, including digging ponds, reforestation, building houses under PMAY (Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana) and rural roads, etc. This targeted 125-day campaign spread across 116 districts in 6 states failed to use 56% of the total allocated amount. The inability of the government to spend the stipulated amount earmarked for improving livelihood opportunities in rural India and creating sustainable infrastructure is certainly a cause for concern, especially with just over a month before the end of the program.
A Hindustan times report on the effectiveness of the GKRA in Bihar stated that the success of the implementation of these social protection programs is determined by factors such as the number of migrant workers in a particular area, the vulnerability of the populations in the areas prone to disasters, etc. The GKRA has been satisfactory in eastern Bihar, central Bihar and the Kosi region, where the migration rate of the unemployed is high, it has not been the same in the northern regions of Bihar which have been affected by floods and heavy rains. However, these explanations have been dismissed by the experts: if the floods are an obstacle to the effectiveness of these devices, it is the responsibility of the local authorities to take care of them for a flawless implementation.
Given the rate at which the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing in India, it is important that the government extend its 125-day period for the GKRA as the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has not yet abated. In addition, government-run data on intra-country migration needs to be better: a study by India Migration Now finds that state policies towards migrants are hostile across the country. It is because of the COVID-19 crisis that otherwise disenfranchised informal sector workers, their numbers and their problems have become evident.
Difficult questions for the government
Looking at global trends, it can be said that no government in the world was prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude, but it is important to ask tough questions of government. Questions about the number of jobs lost due to confinement, the lack of data on migrant deaths, estimated at 972 people, are as important as knowing the impact of such social protection schemes. On top of that, these programs hardly detail long-term solutions to the problem of chronic unemployment in a country like India beyond these 125 days.
According to Amitabh Kundu of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, there are approximately 65 million interstate migrant workers in India. A strong legal framework is needed to protect the rights of these migrants, wherever they work, while offering them the choice to migrate for a livelihood that provides them with a decent life.
However, people should not be forced to migrate from rural areas in search of often vulnerable and precarious jobs, while living in inhospitable conditions. Improving rural infrastructure and therefore livelihoods, through long-term planning, rather than knee-jerk reactions, is one such solution.
Vedika Inamdar and Sumati Thusoo are research authors in the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala.