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India debates how to end a lockdown without sparking another emergency

‘A crisis like this should teach us to rethink how we treat our workers.’

Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS
Migrant worker Dayaram Kushwaha carries his five-year-old son as they walk along a road in Delhi during a nationwide lockdown on 26 March.

India is weeks into a nationwide coronavirus lockdown that triggered a mass exodus of migrant workers, stranded hundreds of thousands in cramped relief camps, and continues to strain food supply chains in a nation of 1.3 billion people.

Authorities here face critical questions as the country heads toward a 3 May target date to lift restrictions: Will another emergency erupt as some 600,000 marooned workers again try to head home? How can better policies safeguard India’s neglected informal workforce – and stave off hunger and crippling labour shortages by helping migrants return to work?

The lockdown beginning 25 March fuelled an unprecedented reverse migration from India’s densely populated cities. Workers suddenly left jobless rushed to find room on inter-state buses and trains, which were soon shut down along with most businesses. Many were forced to walk home in desperation: some reached their villages, but others were stranded along the way and forced into makeshift camps.

“They had no time to prepare for the lockdown,” said Anhad Imaan, head of communications for Aajeevika Bureau, a Rajasthan-based NGO that works with migrant workers. “In the first few days, we received thousands of distress calls from all over the country asking for help from those who had no access to food, or were denied their wages, or were stuck on their way home.” 

The dilemma of how to contain a pandemic while protecting the most marginalised is playing out across the globe, where coronavirus shutdowns have triggered job losses, destabilised economies, and exacerbated food insecurity. But the problem is magnified in populous India, which is dependent on a migrant workforce often beyond the reach of meagre social safety nets. 

India’s informal economy employs more than 80 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, according to the International Labour Organisation.

“They had no time to prepare for the lockdown.”

The agricultural sector – representing more than 40 percent of total employment – is highly dependent on migrants. The country’s booming cities are also fuelled by short-term or seasonal migrants who number more than 100 million, according to national estimates believed to be an undercount. They leave their rural homes to work in construction sites, factories, and hotels, for low wages and little access to healthcare. India’s social security benefits are tied to residence, meaning that many inter-state migrants are left off welfare schemes.

“A crisis like this should teach us to rethink how we treat our workers,” said S. Irudaya Rajan, a professor who studies migration and demographics at the Centre for Development Studies in southern India’s Kerala state. “We know they exist, but we refuse to recognise them.”

Humanitarian groups usually responding to disasters or other crises are now also focused on food and shelter for stranded migrants. 

“We have been flooded with requests for food from different parts of the country,” said Pankaj Anand of Oxfam India.

Life in relief camp limbo

India’s government ordered the nationwide lockdown on 24 March, giving its citizens mere hours to prepare. That evening, Rajkumar Verma, 20, decided to walk home to his village in Uttar Pradesh state from the tarpaulin factory where he worked north of Delhi – a distance of 900 kilometres.

He had lost his job, he was denied his wages, and his landlord had pushed him from his rented home as well. After five days of walking, he and other men he travelled with ran out of food on the edges of Delhi – still far from home. 

Police herded the men into one of at least 21,000 relief camps hurriedly set up by state governments and charities. According to government data, these camps are housing some 660,000 workers; some 2.2 million people also rely on emergency food supplies.

“They are taking care of our needs here, but I want to go home. At least I will not have to worry about basics like shelter and food.”

Verma’s temporary home is a Delhi school converted into a shelter for more than 100 workers. He spends his days in an endless cycle of sleeping, eating, and waiting for the lockdown to end so he can go home.

“What if this lockdown is extended and I can’t reach my family?” he said, speaking to The New Humanitarian by phone.

It’s a scene repeated in packed relief camps across the country. Dungar Singh, 28, is stranded halfway between his home in Rajasthan, in India’s northwest, and Karnataka in the country’s south.

“They are taking care of our needs here, but I want to go home,” he said. “At least I will not have to worry about basics like shelter and food.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus risks at home and on the road

Migrant workers face coronavirus threats in relief camps, as well as in their rural homelands. The nationwide caseload exceeded 29,000 as of 28 April. Health officials say the lockdown may have slowed the outbreak, but new daily cases appear to be increasing, with more than 1,000 each day.

A 2019 report by Niti Aayog, a government think tank, showed states home to large numbers of migrant workers – such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan – also have some of India’s worst public health infrastructure.

State-level responses to the coronavirus have been uneven, but some areas such as Rajasthan have been lauded for conducting extensive screening and tracing patients. 

Vimlendra Ranawat, a district-level official in Rajasthan, said the state has established COVID-19 response teams covering every village.

“We had 14,000 migrants return to the villages under my block,” he said. “We screened them before they entered, put them under quarantine, and have been regularly screening them, apart from providing support in accessing food grains and making sure they are not stigmatised.”

In crowded relief camps, the risk of contagion remains high, aid groups warn.

“There are no masks and no sanitiser, and social distancing is not working,” said Dharmendra Kumar, secretary at Janpahal, a Delhi-based NGO coordinating relief with the state government. “As relief workers, we are equally at risk. These camps could be potential death traps.”

India’s central government has announced a relief package totalling the equivalent of nearly $23 billion for migrant workers and the urban and rural poor. The measures include doubled food rations and free cooking gas for the next three months, a rural employment scheme, as well as cash transfers for groups including people with disabilities and the elderly.

But these measures are far short of what’s needed, analysts say, particularly for workers who had no access to social security in the first place. A government labour force survey released last year estimated that more than 71 percent of people with a regular salary working in non-agricultural industries – from manufacturing and mining to construction and hotels – had no written job contract. Nearly half weren’t eligible for social security benefits, meaning they will have difficulty accessing the coronavirus relief package.

A 15 April report released by Stranded Workers Action Network, a volunteer group started in the wake of the lockdown, said roughly half the 11,000 workers that contacted the organisation for help had less than a day’s worth of food remaining. The vast majority – 89 percent – said they hadn’t been paid by their employers.

The “rate of hunger is exceeding the rate of relief”, the volunteer group warned.

Warnings of labour and food shortages

Analysts say labour shortages are likely to continue even when the lockdown is lifted, which could in turn threaten industries dependent on migrants – including the food and agricultural sectors.

“There will be a reduction in long-distance migration in India after this,” said Rajan, the Centre for Development Studies professor, who believes many migrants may choose to stay in their home regions, wary of being stranded again. “Those who are stuck en route are the ones who had to walk furthest; this will affect their decisions in the future.”

Already, there are early warning signs. The current lockdown coincides with the harvest season for wheat and other winter crops in India. In Punjab and Haryana states in India’s northwest, farmers’ associations say they’re facing an agricultural crisis. Both states depend heavily on migrant labourers for harvesting crops.

Beginning 20 April in areas with fewer coronavirus infections, the government lifted restrictions in the agricultural sector. But many migrant workers had already left with the lockdowns, and new labourers are unable to cross state lines, leaving many fields unharvested, farming groups say.

Reviving the economy and protecting workers

Policymakers in India are faced with addressing both the immediate and long-term consequences of a migration crisis, even as coronavirus cases continue to climb.

Better planning and ample warning could have slowed March’s mass exodus in the first place, said Anhad Imaan of Aajeevika Bureau, the NGO helping migrants in Rajasthan.

“As internal migrants, they should have been given advance notice and transportation,” he said.

Humanitarian groups like Oxfam say the government needs to make sure its relief package reaches migrant workers not covered by social security schemes.

“Policymakers are in uncharted territory and must consider innovative policies,” said a World Bank report released this month, calling for a mix of debt relief, rent moratoriums, and temporary work programmes for newly jobless workers.

“State governments and district administrations need to show resolve in bringing back migrants should they want to do so.”

As lockdown restrictions subside, analysts say a crucial challenge will be to bring people back to work from distant villages.

“State governments and district administrations need to show resolve in bringing back migrants should they want to do so,” said Chinmay Tumbe, an economist and the author of a book on the history of migration in India. “At a time of distress, home is where they can access social security benefits like food from the public distribution system and they have the security of being with their family.”

This should include well-planned efforts to run trains and buses along migration corridors, said economist Shamika Ravi, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. 

“To bring workers back to work in cities will require state facilitation,” she said.

And, over the longer term, migration experts say the central and state governments must ensure all workers – even in the unregulated informal sector – have access to social welfare programmes, regardless of where they live.

“We have no statistics on them,” said Rajan. “We need studies on wages, living conditions, migration patterns.”

Registering and creating a database for informal workers would be an important first step to extending the social safety net to migrants largely alienated from the cities they help build, Tumbe said.

“We need to ensure portability of social security benefits,” he said. “If access to rations and food grains are universalised, the instant flight behaviour would be checked.”


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