Migrants on the outskirts of Delhi NCR, March 2020 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
It is 1:30PM and Anirudh Pradhan, 28, is on his lunch break. His voice sounds upbeat, a far cry from the defeated tones of April 2020 when Open had first got in touch with him. A native of seraikela Kharsawan district of Jharkhand, Pradhan was one of the migrants who made his way back home in 2020 when the lockdown was announced and transport suspended. Pradhan, along with others from his district, was stranded in Hyderabad where he worked in “pipe laying”. the young men were resourceful enough to source the phone numbers of people who could help them, ranging from volunteers to journalists to civil society organisations. “We were in Hyderabad for two months but there was always enough food arranged. Eventually, our state government arranged for us to reach home.” Jamshedpur is a one-hour bus ride from Pradhan’s village and the tata township has been a boon for many like him. “the money is less than what i made in Hyderabad but there is peace of mind. if ever there is another lock-down, i can simply walk home,” he says.
Much has changed as the second-year anniversary of the lockdown in india approaches. the pandemic is still around but so are vaccines. News is now dominated by war and evacuation although the sceptre of Covid variants is always lurking. Public memory is short and already the eerie days of the first wave are distant but many indians still remember the shock and eventual helplessness of watching millions of their countrymen walk home, with entire families in tow.
Till date, there is no clarity as to how many people walked back home between March and May 2020 although the government pegs the number at 1.4 crore. the estimate of internal migrants in india—45.36 crore—is based on Census 2011. But it is these workers, most of them in the informal sector, who form the backbone of the rest of the country’s functioning. “Without migrants, our cities cannot survive. But migrants are invisible to people and to the system. they are as it is among the most vulnerable groups in india who move because of landlessness and low wages. When they started walking back home, there was a lot of awareness about their plight, where they come from, the conditions that make them migrants, but over time, it has dissipated,” says Benoy Peter of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development.
It is widely believed that migrants contribute 10 per cent to India’s economy though they largely remain part of the informal workforce. Nearly every sector from construction to hospitality to textile is dependent on this invisible workforce, and yet it remains among the most vulnerable. They have no social security, are often at the mercy of contractors’ whims.
Over the past two years, there have been attempts to rectify the situation. The Union labour ministry has started eSHRAM, a portal for informal workers be it in construction, migrant workforce or domestic workers, to register themselves. The Labour and Employment Ministry has said that registration of 25 crore workers on the portal has already taken place. The eSHRAM portal, according to Labour Minister Bhupendra Yadav has already been linked to the UMANG app, which provides access to the National Career Services portal. Pradhan is aware of the eSHRAM portal and has registered himself, but admits to not being well-versed with all benefits this might accrue for him.
Another step taken by the government was to expedite the “one nation, one ration” card scheme launched in 2019. It has been rolled out in several states, but activists say that its full impact is yet to be felt. “When it comes to actual numbers (of informal migrant workers and dependents), we are still in the dark and because of that, status quo prevails. The eSHRAM portal does not distinguish between migrant and nonmigrant workers. If we are serious about issues like universal basic income, urban income guarantee, this is the first port of call,” says KR Shyamsundar of XLRI. This is a point which has been made by the government itself earlier in a 2017 report on migration by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. Last year, NITI Aayog had released the draft of a national migrant policy, which too had stressed the need for a central database in order to track the migrants better and safeguard their rights. In December 2020, as the first wave began receding, migrants started making their way back to the same cities they had fled only months earlier. Desperate industry owners arranged for not just buses and trains but even flights to get the workers to come back, but it was not a seller’s market for the migrants. Their working conditions remain the same and wages have come down. “The trigger for migration—no jobs at the home base— remains, which is why migrants have no other choice but to set out again. However, these workers are as much dispensable as they are indispensable,” says Abha Mishra of Aajeevika, an NGO that works with the migrant labour community. Mishra was witness to traders in Surat arranging trains to bring workers from Ganjam district in Odisha. Mishra is of the viewpoint that both the dispatching state and the receiving state should have frameworks in place that help the workers. The way she sees it, the dispatching state is heavily dependent on the remittance of the workers and the receiving state on the revenue they generate. For instance, in Thuamul Rampur, a community development block with the highest incidence of poverty in Kalahandi, Odisha, the estimated annual remittance in 2019 was between “300 and 400 million Indian rupees. Not only did this help the poor households in the region to tide over their distress but it also revived the local economy,” states an International Labour Organization paper titled ‘Road Map for Developing of Policy Framework for the Inclusion of Internal Migrant Workers in India’.
There is no clarity as to how many people walked back home between March and May 2020 although the government pegs the number at 1.4 cr
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But even as the migrants are returning, there are few changes on the ground. The economy has been contracting for some time and the repeated small lockdowns by states haven’t helped matters. Those who are back in cities like Delhi complain about lack of work and reduced wages. Samiullah, 40, is a karigar from Tezpur in Assam who has lived in Delhi for over two decades. He returned to the city two months ago after a gap of a year-and-ahalf. “What is there to eat in the village? Initially, I had left my wife and son behind, but his education suffers there so we are all back.” Samiullah works in one of the boutiques that dot Shahpur Jat, an urban village-turned-fashion hub in south Delhi. His current salary is around ₹ 5,000 per month, a big come down from what he was earning before the pandemic. “In other cities, people are getting paid ₹ 100 per day for this kind of work. At least over here, I can afford to feed my family proper meals though it is a struggle.”
Saimullah is an exception in that he has brought his family back, says Sunil Kumar Aledia of the Centre for Holistic Development. Most returning migrants are coming back alone as uncertainty over the pandemic or income looms large. “Small businesses have been very badly hit over the past two years. A lot of workers were owed wages from earlier also, and even these have not been given. Shahpur Jat, for instance, used to be a vibrant marketplace but sales are extremely slow and there is no work; there is no money. Mazdoori (wage) is down from ₹ 800 a day to ₹ 400 while the cost of living has skyrocketed. The price of milk has been hiked by ₹ 2, and even that is enough to destabilise the monthly budget of a family,” he says.
Aledia was closely involved with the relief effort undertaken to help stranded workers in the city. In urban villages like Behlopur Bangar, Sarai Kale Khan, he is better known as farishta, an angel who ensured that the stranded workers there never ran out of food. One of those workers is Naresh Paswan. A native of Nalanda district in Bihar, Paswan returned to Delhi a monthand-a-half ago. His wife and children have stayed back. “They used to live with me earlier but after being stranded here for months, not knowing where our next meal will come from, we weren’t ready to take that chance again. My wife used to work as a domestic worker but now she’s at home,” says Paswan. He was working as a scrap collector before the lockdown—“gatte ka pheri/ collecting cardboard sheets”—but right now, the going is tough. “With my earlier earnings, I was able to pay off the debt back home, build a more pucca house. Now, we are even more in debt. Let’s see what the future holds,” he says.
Paswan’s family’s predicament raises an important question about migrant behaviour after lockdown. Families are not returning but single, young women, who did not migrate in big numbers earlier, are moving. “We don’t have much of an idea of what is really happening in the receiving areas. Women had to sell their gold for their families to survive. The sale of gold isn’t tracked, otherwise, it can be a good measure of just how acute the distress is,” says Shanta Hans of the Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, Odisha. This has had a direct impact on young girls dropping out of school and joining the workforce. “Women already established in the workforce, say, as in the garment industry, have not been sent back by the parents. This has meant that younger, less skilled girls are joining the workforce, and this in turn impacts the wages,” she says.
As of now, migrant behaviour patterns post-lockdown have been analysed through anecdotal evidence and small studies on the ground. With states imposing their own lockdowns from time to time, which contribute to uncertainty, movement is still restricted. Most employers are small industry owners themselves who have not recovered from the economic blow, and as such are unable to either resume full operations or pay pre-pandemic wages. “Whatever bargaining power a migrant worker may have built over the years, be it due to experience or loyalty, is all lost. They must start from scratch. Sectors like hospitality and tourism have not recovered completely and this has impacted jobs and earnings,” says Liby Johnson, executive director, Gram Vikas, Odisha. But more than anything, Johnson worries about the negative debate around migration since the pandemic. “Pre-pandemic migration was talked about in the context of labour laws, trafficking, etc. Now, we see it as something to be wary of. States are trying to bring in reservation for the locals.”
Most informal migrants in India are circular migrants. They migrate short term, primarily to earn money to send back home, and often shuttle between urban centres for employment and their rural roots. Praful Majhi of Semeldadar village in Kalahandi district of Odisha is a circular migrant. He usually spends six months in Kerala and returns to his village around Dussehra to stay for the harvesting. He is currently home but plans to return to Kerala in a few weeks. “It all depends on the amount of money I need that year. The first order of business is always to repay existing debts. Some of us even save up and buy an auto rickshaw or a small tempo, if possible, in our village. This serves two functions—it allows us to cultivate a secondary source of income even when we are away, and it also offers employment opportunities to those left behind.” Majhi has spoken to his contractor and has been assured his old job at the same rate—₹ 700 per day. “In Kalahandi, even if you manage to get a job, the amount you earn is a pittance. This is why we leave.”
Currently, migrants come under The Inter State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 which seeks to protect labourers from exploitation by contractors. But it is limiting in that it only covers labourers who migrate with a contractor. The national migrant policy draft aims to rectify this apart from recommending “true agency” for the migrant workers. The draft identifies the Labour and Employment Ministry as the central point and recommends the setting up of a unit that will help co-ordinate the work undertaken by other ministries and departments to safeguard the rights of migrants. One of its recommendations includes deputing officers from sending states to receiving states. “The draft policy has some very good points but it now needs forward momentum. With every passing day, migration and its complexities in India become more layered. For instance, now the direction of migration is towards the south as there is a demographic shift there. We have to start factoring in migration due to climate change also,” says Benoy Peter.
In the two years since the lockdown, there is, experts agree, now more sensitivity towards migrants and their issues. “The state of urgency has to be maintained. Even today, the issue of housing, access to healthcare, education rights for the children of migrants are persistent issues and need to be addressed,” says Peter.