SUMEETHA.M | 6 MAY, 2020
The Precarious Journey: Internal Migrants and the Pandemic in India
Their choice is simple: Either die of the pandemic or die of hunger
Migration - or mobility of the human race is not a new concept. Mostly migrants are economic migrants, searching for means to live or visualizing migration as a means to increase their income. When we analyse human migration theories, it is implicit that the future gains from income, is what that prompts migrants to stay back in the new places. No matter how hard the present condition of living or working may be, it is the expectant gains from migration that prompts people to work in abysmal conditions. Migration decisions by and large are not by choice. There are very few lucky beings who can decide whether or not to migrate based on their skill sets and educational background.
For the last few weeks, we have come across accounts of how internal migrants in our country were stranded on the roads, while we were locked up in the comforts of our houses, to ward off the coronavirus. They struggled to get on buses and some ventured long distances, on foot. The social distancing concept, absolutely was not comprehended by them. All this is unimaginable for most of us, who are blessed with secure physical spaces and financial stability.
During my last decade of work on internal migration I have come across workers who work for merely Rs 100 per day, and who do not want to return to their villages, because they expect some kind of upward mobility. They work in most appalling conditions and often have no separation of the working space from the living space as they stay in the workshops itself. For them, migration is not an accumulation strategy but merely a coping strategy.
While I write this, I must remind the reader that I am also a migrant worker, but a migrant by choice. Most of us in the cities of Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, of course would be in the same position as I am. Even though migration gives us different possibilities and perspectives (and ofcourse the ability to pay our own bills), it is a stupendous journey for anyone who embarks on it. It definitely becomes more complicated, when you are a woman, migrating to an unknown city with two little children. The choice of return migration is always open to people like me. But the process of migration, sometimes sets in (im) mobility as we are placed in new physical spaces with constraints which makes free mobility a myth. As a migrant, battling each day has been a herculean task, but the element of choice, makes it easier.
Return migration would be the last in the agenda of the internal migrants and none of them would be able to make arrangements to leave any state, even if lock down notices are given to them forty eight hours before. As these migrants are engaged as casual workers, workers in unregistered manufacturing, vendors, construction workers -- daily wages become crucial for survival. Their choice is simple: Either die of the pandemic or die of hunger. As per the International Labour Organisation, COVID 19 will plunge 400 million workers of the informal sector into poverty in India.
On April 8 2020, the central government decided to collect data on migrant workers, so as to ensure relief for them. A 29,000 crore relief fund has also been announced to provide food and housing for these stranded migrant workers. Though these initiatives will bring short term relief to migrant workers, a long term policy framework has become the need of the hour. Internal migration has accelerated in the last 15 years - till date we do not have a specific policy regarding this. Of course there have been some initiatives by various states, which often do not reach the real beneficiaries or reach maybe very few of them.
The growth rate of migrants between 1991 and 2001 (4.5 per cent per annum) was much higher than the workforce growth rate (1.8 per cent per annum). In the period 2001-11, according to Census estimates the annual rate of growth of labour migrants nearly doubled relative to the previous decade, rising to 4.5% per annum in 2001-11 from 2.4% in 1991-2011(Economic Survey, 2016).
Data on internal migration is inadequate, and we are nowhere in a position to assess the needs and problems of these migrants. The need is to recognize them as workers, and allow them to lead a life of dignity. After all migration, itself would have meant making so many decisions, which would have cost them most of their savings if they had any.
Given the population density in our cities and lack of access to basic amenities by the migrant population, the first step we had to take was to contain the panic created by the situation. For this local government has a decisive role to play. But as inequality is an accepted fact in any economy, as soon as a crisis situation arose migrants had to face it, and face it alone in most cases. It was only later when the media, and certain social groups and workers, pointed out their plight, did the government decide that it requires some attention.
The ugly truth is that all Indian states realized these hapless workers existed after most of them came out in the open to protest violating lock down norms. Mobility imparts freedom, hope and a new beginning. But for the vast majority of internal migrants, mobility adds to precarious existence. To ignore the gravity of the situation is no longer an option, it is time we make humane policies that can reap economic benefits. When we separate the social from the economic, such policies will have no positive impact on the country. The moment we choose inclusive development to remain in academic discourses and policy papers, our collective conscience is failing.
Sumeetha.M is an economist by training and has a PhD in economics from JNU, New Delhi, completed from the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum. She has worked on the topic Labour in a Globalised World: Inmigration to the Gold jewellery Making Industry in Kerala, India. For the last decade she has worked on internal migration issues.