Amid the lack of a responsive mobility option when the lockdown was imposed, despair, being treated like a commodity, like inferior citizens, serious concerns of being infected in the cities, and the need for the comforts of their homes led several million migrant workers and families to begin the journey home on foot.

With no government support, their journey has often been several hundred miles long, following car highways and train tracks, hungry and relentlessly tired. This has turned into the great human tragedy of our times.

The desperation and chaos hold an eerie similarity to the time of Partition in 1947, when millions of people from both sides were garrotted at the borders, leading to exceptionally brutal and terrible miseries.

The reverse movement of millions of migrants is an ongoing challenge before the local, state and central governments. Around 40,000 relief camps and shelters have been set up all over the country in which over 14 lakh stranded migrant workers and other needy people were provided relief as of last month.

More than 80% of the relief camps have been set up by state governments, and the rest by NGOs. Another 26,000 food camps have provided more than 1 crore people with food. Over 16.5 lakh workers are being provided with food and relief by their employers.

These relief shelters and camps are concentrated in the cities of Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi. The southern states are handling the situation better than the national capital and western states; eastern India being the country’s labour supply hub.

The statement ‘people’s lives are more important than the economy’ has changed, with the economy now becoming equally important in statements by elected officials. However, the people who drive this economy are marching home without support.

This time many labourers will not come back due to shock and uncertainty, which means that most small and medium companies, factories and other businesses will face the heat once the lockdown period is over. Their production and profits will be reduced while their wage bill will rise. Wealthy households will also find it tough to run without their helpers, drivers, maids.

Meanwhile, early signs of an upsurge in the unemployment rate (Bihar 47%, Jharkhand 47%, UP 22% according to the CMIE) at migrant workers’ native places indicate a threatening picture ahead.

The Census number of interstate migrants had increased from 42.3 million in 2001 to 56.3 million in 2011. One-third had migrated for economic purposes. The Economic Survey 2017 further estimated that at least 9 million people migrate between states annually within the country, one-third of them for economic purposes. Over 90% of interstate migrant workers were estimated to be male, mostly from states in eastern India.

In 2011, around 447 million people (37% of the total population) were identified as migrants by place of birth. Women constituted around 70% of this figure. Intradistrict migrants comprised almost 60% followed by interdistrict migrants at 27%.

Uttar Pradesh, though primarily an out-migrating state, also emerged as the third largest destination for interstate migrants after Maharashtra and Delhi.

Nevertheless, from 2001 to 2011, the north Indian states experienced net emigration: UP recorded a net loss of 3.4 million people and Bihar of 2.7 million people in this period, the other net emigrating states being Rajasthan, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.

The most significant reason for migration among males was work/employment and among females, marriage (60.3 percent).

Other sources including NSSO surveys and the India Human Development Surveys estimate the number of migrant workers at upwards of 60 million individuals.

Reports of current registration by migrants with their state governments to return home clearly reflects their desperation. About two million have registered in UP (and one million have returned), over 600,000 in Jharkhand, about 1 million in Bihar. The registered data reveal that over three-fourths of the registered migrants are either from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. The registration process is still on and more will register to return home.

Even after the announcement of various measures and assurance of essentials and retaining their livelihood by opening up economic activities, they are not ready to stay any more. Many of them do not have proof of residence in the places they work, cannot get a ration card, and thus remain out of the ambit of the public distribution system. By all accounts, most of them have spent the past two months in overcrowded shelters arranged by state governments, civil society groups or their employers.

Most are upset over the treatment they received from their employers and know that the cities still have not accepted them. Even after so many years of contributing to the progress of these places, governments there did not provide them any assistance and broke their trust.

They live in rented houses in slums and informal settlements, construction sites, pavements without proper supplies of water and sanitation facilities, or electricity. In rural areas they can at least access government welfare schemes such as MGNREGS, the PM Kisan Yojana, and PDS rations. But in the absence of documents or IDs in the cities, they cannot access such schemes. This is one important lesson they learnt due to this pandemic.

Hence they are desperate to return to their native places. The relief camps set up for them have merely delayed the inevitable. Despite industry concerns, a number of state governments refused to stop trains and buses which were announced to carry migrant workers home. However, they still need to fill in registration forms to travel back by special trains, which many of them find difficult and will prefer to travel on foot or by cycle.

Industrialists and employers are realising for the first time that their activities will not see a recovery without migrant labourers. Most relatively developed or industrialized states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and Karnataka are likely to face a labour crisis. This mass reverse migration has raised concerns over the looming economic crisis.

Workers who migrate are economic agents at their destination but also at their homes, as they send huge amounts of money as remittance to their families. Therefore, migrant workers’ home states will also be affected badly on three counts:

(i) Increasing pressure to generate livelihood opportunities for returning migrants.

(ii) Reduction in remittances or cash flow from émigrés.

(iii) Fear of infection in regions hitherto free of Covid-19.

Businesses and other industrial bodies have already started putting pressure on governments to stem this reverse migration. A key reason for this is the MSMEs who think they may not be able to resume operations fully because of their huge dependence on migrant workers.

Now for the first time, the longstanding plight of migrant workers has gained serious attention. They were invisible to us and were not considered important economic agents or drivers, neither at their destination nor their places of origin.

The central government recently announced the following measures to alleviate the distress of migrant workers:

. Free foodgrains and pulses to 8 crore migrant labourers for May and June

. An additional Rs 40,000 crore allocated to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

. 100% national portability of ration cards by March 2021 to ensure that people in transit can get their PDS dues

. Affordable Rental Housing Complexes for migrant labourers, the urban poor, students etc.

. A new central online repository on migrant workers

. Shramik Special trains from all districts connected by rail in the country

. Rs 1,000 crore from the private trust fund PM-CARES operated by the Prime Minister of India

The number of migrants who fled the big cities may now prefer to work in their smallhold farms or find work in nearby towns. It could deprive many existing manufacturing units and business centres for a long period of time and the businesses and economy are likely to face a recession, if not depression.

The home states will also have to create more job opportunities in rural areas, particularly in non-farm activities, with gainful employment for those migrants who do not want to go back to the cities.

Undeniably, this is an unprecedented situation and the ways and means to tackle it must be sensitive, responsive, quick and above all caring.

Authors: Balwant Singh Mehta (Institute for Human Development), I.C.Awasthi (Indian Society of Labour Economics), Mashkoor Ahmad (Aligarh Muslim University), Arjun Kumar (Impact and Policy Research Institute)