For India’s Migrant Workers, All Roads Lead Back To Cities
A child covers herself with her mother’s saree as migrant workers line up for Covid-19 tests at the Anand Vihar bus terminal in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

For India’s Migrant Workers, All Roads Lead Back To Cities

Anup Singhania runs a small business of manufacturing glass marbles in Visakhapatnam. The process involves melting glass in a furnace at 1,300 degree Celsius. To reignite the furnace and restart production after a near six-month lockdown, Anup needed his workers back. But most of them were now a 1,000-odd kilometres away in Sasaram, Bihar, from where many of them hailed.

Despite no work and reduced income, a number of workers at Singhania’s unit were stranded in the city after the Covid-19 crisis hit, forcing the country into a lockdown. But, in May, they managed to book tickets onboard the Shramik trains to Patna, and took a bus to Sasaram.

While Singhania wanted them back — and some were willing — the return journey was not going to be easy as regular train and bus services were still to resume. Singhania, eager to restart his business, finally sent a car to Sasaram from Visakhapatnam to bring back four workers. After the initial four came, more agreed. A van was then sent to bring back more employees.

Lakhs of rupees were spent. But many like Singhania had no choice if they wanted to try and get businesses running.

“I was losing customers as the demand was high because of the ongoing school holidays and I had no stock to sell,” said Singhania. “If I did not start, there would have been no revenue and I would have been unable to pay salaries to my local workers. They would have left to look for other work and I could not start without them so I had no option left,” Singhania said.

For India’s Migrant Workers, All Roads Lead Back To Cities

Reversing The Reverse Migration

News reports are littered with stories similar to the one that Singhania narrates. Businesses have sent vans and buses, some even offered flight tickets. All this to get workers back from the hinterland, where they retreated in one of the biggest episodes of reverse migration the country has seen.

The retreat into villages, however, didn’t sustain as many workers are now finding the need to return to cities to get work and increase their earnings.

While there are no official estimates of migration trends, a number of on-ground private surveys are capturing this return of migrant workers.

Among them is a survey conducted by the Inferential Survey Statistics and Research Foundation, formed by a group of retired government officers. This group surveyed 2,917 migrants during July-August 2020 in 34 districts across Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. These are the states from which the majority of migrant workers come.

This survey found that 67.6% migrants wanted to come back to the towns and cities where they had worked.

Another such survey was conducted by the ‘Rapid Community Response to Covid-19’, a collective of 20 grassroots civil society organisations. This survey covered 11,000 respondents across nine states in May 2020. The sample included 2,889 migrants, 66% of whom wished to go back.

A study by Action Aid, conducted in the third phase of the lockdown towards the end of May, also threw up a similar finding. More than 56% of those surveyed said they wanted to return to where they worked when economic activity resumes.

Businesses, too, are starting to tell the story of returning workers.

While it was largely expected that the workers would not return until Diwali, they are coming back by road and rail, said Jaxay Shah, president at the Confederation of Real Estate Developer's Associations of India.

In the construction sector, particularly dependent on migrants, Shah said work has resumed with help from local governments in most states, except maybe those that still have a large number of active cases like Maharashtra.

Some of this renewed activity is also showing up in indicators of remittances.

Remittances have picked up to 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels after having dropped by 80-90% in the initial weeks of the lockdown, according to Ashish Ahuja, chief operating officer at Fino Payments Bank, which sees a large part of its business come from internal remittances. The payments bank had been clocking about Rs 3,600 crore in domestic remittances a month compared with Rs 4,500 crore earlier. Average ticket size of remittances, however, has now fallen to Rs 3,200-3,400 compared with Rs 3,700 pre-pandemic, said Ahuja. This indicates that jobs are not paying as much and not everyone has a job yet, he said.

Passenger traffic on Indian Railways, yet another rough indicator of the movement of workers, has also picked up. The railways transported 1.6 crore non-suburban passengers in September 2020 compared with 0.6 crore in July and 1 crore in August.

Migrant workers are transported by a state provided bus to their home villages, in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
Migrant workers are transported by a state provided bus to their home villages, in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

Was The Return Inevitable?

The reverse migration, thought to been the largest since India’s independence, not only touched the nation’s collective conscience, it left people wondering when and if these migrant workers would return to urban areas. A delayed return would cost businesses and the economy.

Others said that lack of employment opportunities in rural areas would force them to come back, despite the government trying to provide sustenance via an expanded rural jobs programme.

The survey by ISSRF found that over a third of the migrants had found no work after they moved back. The Rapid Community Response to Covid-19 found this percentage to be at nearly three-fourths of the migrants that returned home.

Despite some variance across states, the degree of deprivation, desperation and unemployment in not just inter-state migrants but intra-state, is broadly clear, said Ravi Srivastava, director at the Centre for Employment Studies, Institute For Human Development. No state government had geared up enough to give adequate work, Srivastava said. Unemployment, according to him, is already rampant in major destinations that migrants belong to.

Even back at the place of migration, there are not still not enough jobs waiting for workers as economic revival has been slow, Srivastava said. Also, migrants are returning to the same kind of accommodation and sub-par amenities. Wages, too, have not increased. If anything, wages of unskilled workers declined in some places, he said.

Amit Basole, associate professor of economics at Azim Premji University, said existing and ongoing research indicated a substantial dent in migrant income that pulled down savings and led to a rise in indebtedness.

The return of migrant workers is good for restoring output as well as for worker incomes, Basole said. “However, I am not sure how much better prepared we are on the health front,” he added. As such, a larger fiscal intervention is still required. “It is still not too late for measures such as direct income transfers using not only Jan Dhan but other accounts as well.”

Urgent attention and concerted action needs to be taken on the question of livelihoods for migrant workers, along with the inclusivity and liveability of our cities, the study by ActionAid concluded. All that is different for now is a little more awareness about hand washing and sanitisation and an increase in exercising precaution, Srivastava said.

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