India woke up to a rude shock on the morning of March 25,2020 when pictures of millions of migrant workers set out on foot on highways to reach their homes in villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and other states began circulating.

A nation wide lockdown had been declared at 8 p.m. the previous night and came in force four hours later at midnight.

Who were these people walking on the highways when social distancing was to be practiced to stop the Corona virus contagion? Who were these people walking with their small belongings packed in one or two bags and sacks , their children perched on their shoulders? Women and men, young and old who thought that they could just walk 200 to 700 kilometres on foot? They thought they could walk without food, water, and shelter?

As the pictures and videos started pouring in, they invoked a mix of reactions from the cities’ well off – surprise, sympathy, shame, rage, accusation, disgust. Those who build the cities and provide services have been invisibilized even during a normal day where they are all over the city space. And now suddenly, without warning, they became visible walking on the inter-state highways.

The exodus exposed the precariousness of urban informal economy. The urban informal economy is predominantly constituted by an estimated 100 million migrant labour from rural areas. While people in the cities stocked up groceries prior to lockdown and many rushed to buy essential commodities in panic when the lockdown was announced, the daily wage earners knew that they could not survive the weeks without work.

The cities they worked in became a cold and hostile space. Since India liberalized its economy decades ago, a new middle class sprung up, and aspiration became the buzz word. The poor were left out of the space as booming India took over, more isolated than before.

Migrant workers constitute the backbone of informal unorganized work in urban areas. They work as construction workers, they work in manufacturing industries, they work in service sectors- motor garages, restaurants, home delivery etc.- they work in shopping malls, they work in hotels, they work in hospitals, they work as domestic workers and as sanitation workers, and provide many other kinds of services that urban centres need such as gardeners, drivers. Some are self-employed such as plumbers, street vendors, and electricians.

Low wages drive them to live in urban slums and in congested buildings; sometime five to six people share a single room. Without work contract, health insurance, and lack of any financial and social security to buffer during crisis, migrant workers are prone to vulnerability and destitution as the exodus in the wake of nation-wide lockdown shows.

Rural migration to cities is not new in India. However, the magnitude of migration to cities has grown exponentially with the growth of urban centres in a liberalized economy. It is estimated that construction work itself employs 40 million workers.

The vast bulk of migrant labour who leave their villages and come to work in cities are either small and marginal farmers whose livelihood sources have dried up due to agriculture no longer being viable for farmers with small holdings. Or are landless labour who traditionally worked as agricultural labour, and low wages coupled with uncertainty of work have driven them to urban centres in search of work. Besides, displacement from land due to industrial projects, national parks, large dams, and natural calamities such as floods and drought also drive the rural poor to cities for work.

There is an overall pattern of labour migration from rural to urban. Seasonal migration takes place when people go out to cities to work temporarily, usually during the lean period when they are not working in farms. Permanent migration takes place when people leave their villages and settle in cities. Often the young male members migrate and the women stay at home to take care of the old and children. However, women, particularly young women, also migrate to cities. Distress migration takes place when all sources of livelihood dry up leaving people no choice but to migrate to cities.

Daily wage economy is even more precarious within the informal economy and daily wage earners are more vulnerable. Workers who are attached to institutions such as offices, homes, industries, shops, schools etc., and get a monthly salary somehow manage to save a little, have better social capital, and likely to pull through at least two to three weeks during a crisis period.

Their concern is whether their employers would be willing to pay them for the period in which they did not work and retain them later, the prospects of which appear uncertain.

Daily wage workers live a day-to-day existence. It is estimated that around 40 % of workers are daily wage workers earning as little as 400 or 500 rupees; women daily wagers earn even less. Even construction work that engages them for months on a single site does not provide any kind of contract. Some of them are better assured of work if they manage to stick to a contractor. However, in a crisis as the current lockdown the threat to business becomes imminent, there is no guarantee of work. The only segments of daily wagers who are earning during lockdown are those providing essential services.

The exodus of migrant workers is a telling tale of their absolute powerlessness. Lack of financial back-up, desperation to walk home on foot, harassment by police, and that neither the government nor their employers thought about them show that migrant workers lack any power be it economic, social or political.

How are citizens so powerless? That they are pushed to levels of indignity where some are placed forcefully in cargo containers, caged from all sides. And some are sprayed with chemical disinfectants?

The exodus shows that for those who have retained their link with villages, there is a home to return to. “What will we eat here – stones? We can at least eat roti and salt in our village”, one migrant worker told a journalist pointing out that they would die of starvation if they don’t reach home. There is social capital in village, they can borrow money, families can help each other, and they can share food. Without that link, migrant workers’ fate hinges entirely on a government’s willingness and ability to provide them with the basic ingredient for survival: food.

When India turned neoliberal in the early 1990s, two landmark legislations were enacted to provide the poor safety nets and protection in a free market economy. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA, 2006) provides 100 days of paid work to a rural household that demand work. The National Food Security Act (NFSA, 2013) is designed to save the poorest of the poor from starvation by providing rice, wheat, millet, and pulses at a highly subsidized rate.

Executed through the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) NFSA is implemented both in rural and urban areas. The champions of free market called the NREGA ‘dole economy’ and accused the NFSA for making people lazy.

At this time of distress the two legislations can provide the migrant labour with the necessary succour. Though NREGA is not implemented except in a few places during the lockdown, once it isover, people can be given work under it. For many, food grains supply through PDS has become the only source of food during the lockdown period.

The exodus of migrant workers is not just a commentary on the distress rural economy suffers from, but also on remittance economy, money sent by migrant members to their families for sheer subsistence.

The stress on rural economy is going to increase as the work opportunities in cities are not going to open up in near future. Besides, rural economy is also hit by the lockdown. Building the rural economy therefore assumes urgency. Agriculture sector needs to be augmented. Economic recovery will depend a lot on how imaginatively the planners respond to the reconstruction of rural economy post-lockdown.

Ranjita Mohanty is a Sociologist and author of the book Democratizing Development: Struggles for Rights and Social Justice in India (Sage Publication, New Delhi. 2018).