It has been said that ‘Only in our dreams are we free, the rest of the time we need wages.’ This is the reality for many people on the move across the country’s length and breadth, many of them absolutely penniless, and those who have the money saving it for their next bus or truck ride as they try to move from state to state to reach their final destination: their homes.

While we hear of citizen groups helping get people back by bus and some even by air, those are really only the lucky few. Many of the million workers on the move are treading the weary road on foot or trying to get some kind of vehicle to ferry them to as far as they can.

A study by the Aajeevika Bureau (one of the few organisations in the country working exclusively on migration and labour) estimates that the number of migrant workers in urban areas would be 100 million, accounting for one in ten Indians.

A report by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) found that almost 8 out of 10 workers had shockingly not been paid at all during the lockdown. And in the Azim Premji University COVID19 Livelihoods Survey, half (49%) of the households they spoke to reported that they did not have enough money to buy even a week’s worth of essential items – and two-thirds (67%) of workers reported having lost their employment – the ratio was 80% in urban and 57% in rural areas.

In a discussion with Johnson Topno from Jharkhand who is state head for the Phia Foundation and is coordinating the Migrant Control Room at the Secretariat in Ranchi, he tells us: “In the last month alone we have received 70,000 calls from desperate workers from all over the country.” One of the calls handled by them was all the way from Ladakh where 200 workers were stuck; the Jharkhand government sought permission to air lift them and finally managed to start the process of getting them back home on the 29th of May, on private flights.

So far the Support Centre has helped bring more than 1.2 lakh people back to the state, but they have identified another 11 lakh people at various locations across the country of whom at least 7 lakh wish to return to Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, more than 2.4 lakh workers have already returned to the state and another 3.6 lakhs at least are expected to return. The state currently has more than 17,500 quarantine centres.

The workers who have managed to return are of course happy to be in their villages, but many are still not in their homes and thus away from their loved ones, having been put under mandatory quarantines for at least 14 days in some building in the respective Panchayats (an Anganwadi Centre, school building etc).

Pre-existing faultlines

Krishna M. from Dhanbad, Jharkhand makes a distress call early in the morning to a social worker he has been in touch with ever since he journeyed from Aurangabad, Maharashtra through Chhattisgarh and finally to his village in Dhanbad.

The journey would have taken just a day by train in normal times, but he spent four days on the roads, mostly being pushed into trucks by police personnel.

In a distressed voice he tells the lady in Chhattisgarh: “Please speak to the Mukhiya (head) of the Panchayat, he has not being giving us food properly or allowing our family members to come near us.”

In addition to people being denied food, there are some religious tensions in the village, because of which people of the faith other than his have made it home despite travelling with them all these days while he has not been able to.

Krishna and his friends even stopped in Dhanbad town before reaching their village, got their health checkups done, and were sent to their village upon not testing positive.

Left without food and shelter in the cities, many workers have made such arduous journeys to their homes in the hope that something better awaits them there. Once back home, however, they do not want to encounter the caste, religious and other discriminations which would have led many to leave in the first place.

Many studies and news reports show how caste discriminations still run deep in our societies, especially in villages. These pre-created faultlines might prompt people, especially from dispossessed communities, to look for work in the cities again.

For those monitoring the status of quarantine centres, one of the frequent issues coming up is that of people not wanting to share space, and people from the “upper castes” demanding different arrangements be made for them.

Another issue is a common one: if the food is cooked by a Dalit or somebody from a Schedule Caste then some refuse to eat it.

Pandering to people who want to engage in such acts is a criminal act. State governments must stand firm to their commitments to abolish caste discrimination and assert the doctrines of Article 15 of the Constitution.

The pull of villages

If provided for and ensured opportunities to earn an income, many of these migrants could be better off in their villages or close to their villages. Studies like this one from Beed in Maharashtra (2016) have shown that disadvantaged castes are often not able to gain the benefits of migration.

Similarly, a study based on an analysis of Census data and research studies by India Migration Now showed that social segregation, labour market discrimination and social barriers to accessing the most basic services continue to plague the livelihood and everyday life of migrants belonging to SC and ST families.

Exclusionary government policies, the cost of living, and segregation based on caste and religion often push migrants to the fringes of cities where their health and living conditions get compromised, as seen in this IndiaSpend report from October last year.

While back in their villages firstly people can vote in their leaders at the Panchayat level and above, which gives them some deciding powers. Second, they have access to the public distribution system (although One Nation One Ration Card should become a reality soon) and can access medical facilities easier, and third they have easier access to reservations meant for them in schools, universities and public employment.

Wages, the deciding factor

One of the questions Krishna M. from Dhanbad asks with a lot of anxiety is ‘Kya sarkar hame kuch paisa dega?’ Will the government give us any money?

He has heard that the Jharkhand government has been transferring money into the accounts of stranded migrants and is keen to get his share. Unfortunately Krishna was unable to register himself on the Mukhyamantri Sahayta App before the April 30 deadline, so he might not get the money he is owed.

The promised amount is Rs.1,000. The statutory minimum wage for unskilled workers in the state is just above Rs.7,000 per month.

For workers to continue to live in villages they obviously need to get an income. The central and state governments need to quickly swing into action to provide rural employment, something which will boost the economy too.

While the MGNREGA is being used to provide temporary employment this might not be enough: between the 1st of April and the 20th of May, 3.5 million new people have enrolled in the scheme.

But there are not enough employment opportunities within the scheme. Migrants also have a range of skills and not everyone is keen to engage in digging pits or doing earth work etc. as much NREGA work calls for.

A range of innovative ideas on how to engage skilled and unskilled people is the need of the hour.

For workers who were disenfranchised in cities, have faced traumatic conditions and are now returning home, favourable conditions psychologically and physically (in the form of immediate wages and work) and a supportive environment are required urgently.

Rebecca S. David is an independent development consultant