The agriculture sector is still the largest employer in India. But owing to rapid urbanisation, more and more rural youths are looking to find work in urban centres. This phenomenon has led to a significant rural to urban migration in India.
According to the 2011 Census, the figure of internal migrations in India stood at 139 million. The Economic Survey of India, 2017, stated that around nine million migrations occur annually in India. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Delhi are the major destinations of migration - mostly from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal among others. A large section of the total migrated workforce is daily wage earners with seasonal employment. The coronavirus pandemic – that has shaken the country – has put this section of the country’s population at great risk and exposed their real condition.
Seasonal migrated labourers who mostly work in construction, hospitality, textile, manufacturing, and domestic service sectors are being considered the most vulnerable. In most cases, they are even denied from getting the minimum wages entitled to them under the respective state regulations. Seasonal construction and hospitality workers mostly stay at construction sites or hotels to avoid higher accommodation costs. The nationwide lockdown declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the end of March, 2020, has jeopardised their livelihood options as work in most sectors came to a grinding halt. The sections who could retain their employment were forced to take significant cuts in their wages. In many cases, their wages have been deferred by their employers who themselves are under severe economic strain.
Death toll and chaos
On March 24, as soon as the lockdown was declared, large numbers of migrant workers were stranded in Indian cities. Most of them were instantly without jobs. The few trains and buses that left after the declaration of the lockdown and before its implementation were overcrowded and could not accommodate these workers. As public transport systems were shut down, many started walking back to their native villages, which were hundreds of kilometres away. The walked exposed – without food, water or shelter and often with children. Disturbing images emerged from Delhi’s Anant Vihar Railway Station and from the Bandra Railway Station in Mumbai – where thousands of migrant workers gathered to travel back to their native villages – hoping that transport arrangements have been made by the state.
According to media sources, around 22 workers have lost their lives while trying to reach their native villages on foot. Many of them died of exhaustion and others from hunger. Some met with accidents. The Uttar Pradesh police were captured on camera spraying disinfectants on these workers who had walked hundreds of kilometres to reach Uttar Pradesh from Delhi. Many of them have been stopped midway. They are now being addressed by several NGOs and civil society organisations who have come forward with food and shelter.
The state of Kerala has stood apart in this regard. The Kerala government has addressed the largest number of migrant labourers and calling them their ‘guests’, the Kerala government is providing them with cook food and shelter.
A relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore was later announced by the central government to ease the situation. Paramita Banerjee, Co-founder of Diksha, an organisation that works for adolescent children, told BE, “During the ongoing crisis, we are providing rations to few poor families in Kolkata who have migrated here from other states in search of jobs. We are receiving donations from individuals who want to help these people in distress. Though we are doing our part, the government must take responsibility to make these citizens capable enough to survive in these trying times. Though the government has allotted relief budget for these workers, many of them are stranded in cities and are not carrying appropriate cards that would allow them to utilise government provisions. This needs to be addressed and temporary ration card distribution can be a solution.”
The need of the hour is to work together and leave aside political agendas. There is need for an inclusive package but the need for inclusive polices is more. The government may also look to partially open some labour-intensive sectors – of course with adherence to medical guidelines – to ensure some employment. More empathetic outlook is needed from the government.