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Home in a Pandemic: Return Migration in India

18 Apr 2020

By:- Bhim Reddy and Maansi Parpiani

The lockdown implemented in India from 25 March 2020 to curb social contact and mobility of people in order to arrest the spread of COVID-19, initially for 21 days, is now extended till 3 May with some relaxations in rural areas. In its immediate aftermath, migrant workers attempting to return to distant home states and villages were seen as irrational, as they were defying the lockdown. If the lockdown caused people to want to move back to rural areas, what will its extension mean for them? Will their need to return become even more pressing? Moreover, will its eventual lifting bring back normalcy and people back to the cities?

What is the urgency for return migration?

Return migration had already begun from cities like Mumbai in mid-March, as the fears of contracting COVID became prevalent and the indications of a possible shut-down of work and transport became increasingly imminent. With the official announcement, the need to go back became more desperate, while the journey itself became more arduous. With the lack of transport options, many from cities across the country, started walking hundreds of kilometres to get home. Many are stranded near the inter-state borders and shelter homes. Many more who live in urban informal settlements and work sites, and who cannot sustain in cities for a fortnight or a month without earnings, were helplessly waiting for the 21st day. The spread of COVID-19 where people live in crammed spaces and use shared toilet facilities, have also accentuated fears of disease.

The extension of the lockdown has put workers in further economic uncertainty and psychological distress. Workers in many states have asked for passes to be allowed to travel back, and have come onto the streets in Surat and Mumbai, in defiance of the lockdown demanding a way out for their return home. Their resources are even more scarce now, and government relief efforts are unable to adequately address the quantum of needs. In addition, the worry of being away from family members and the community at large has put migrants in a survivalistic mode. ‘When things become normal, we will figure out what to do next. First we need to stay alive’ has become the usual refrain. The scale of such return mobility could thus be momentous, particularly given the uncertainty around the revival of their employment.

One of the reasons for their frantic attempts to move out before the end of March was to avoid paying house rent in advance for the next month. Some of them who could not escape, have now paid half a month’s rent in the hope of vacating by 15th April when the lockdown was supposed to end. Now they have no means to pay rents for the extended lockdown period. A Panchayat Secretary, in the (old) district of Mahabunagar in Telangana that has many outgoing migrants both within and beyond state borders, noted that post the lockdown announcement about ninety people have returned to the village he is posted, and that many are still stuck in distant cities. Many from this area including his own village are awaiting the end of the lockdown period to return back to their homes.

A small group of cycle-rickshaw pullers in east Delhi have still been waiting for customers near DDA markets and middleclass apartments. Each day, they get a few rides from people wanting to carry groceries back home in rickshaws. They go out to work, also to avoid staying in crammed rented rooms that they share with at least four or five other migrant workers. They said that it was possible to work in middle class localities as the police was lenient there, in comparison to poorer neighbourhoods where they were routinely stopped. One rickshaw puller who went towards Kalyanpuri could not escape police. His rented rikshaw was seized along with some forty others and they were asked to collect them after 14th April. Many among the rickshaw drivers who come from the nearby districts of UP have managed to return back from Delhi, while those hailing from farther states like Bihar have remained in the city. They are planning to get back to Bihar and do not mind taking a truck or any other ad-hoc mode of transport. When asked why they would like to return, given that they might be allowed to work after the lockdown, they said that their families are worried and want them to come back home. They also mentioned that other workers, like those in the construction sector might not have their employment resume for a long time, and would like to return as well.

Security guards are among the few workers with continued employment during the lockdown. One of them, while pointing out how migrants in the slum where he lives feel trapped, noted that the poor should be allowed to work for the remaining days of April, as it would allow them to access at least half a month’s salary. Many employers of domestic workers and drivers would refuse to pay any wages for the days that they did not work. They fear that if not allowed to work for the rest of the month, they would lose their wages totally.

COVID - lockdown revelations: Migrants’ vulnerability and state response

The scale of internal migration, micro-level studies indicate, is larger than all current estimates. Official statistics, either of the Census of India or the National Sample Surveys, do not comprehensively capture all ‘types’ of migrants. Migrant workers tend to follow different migration patterns, cycles, and frequency of movement. Some are more settled in the cities and visit villages occasionally. Others go back and forth, with their migration co-ordinated with seasons and farm work in their villages. These patterns of mobility evolve over time, making difficult any simple categorisation of migration typologies into permanent, temporary, seasonal, circular etc. This does not imply that governments could not have known of the migrant population or anticipated return migration before the lockdown. Administration at the local level often has a good idea about such patterns of mobilities. For example, elections are a common instance when many migrants return to their villages to vote, and thus there exist local level estimates at both rural and urban sites. Government clearly failed to plan for these groups.

The divergences between workers make any single policy approach untenable. The government response to migrant workers so far has focused around a one-point agenda of migrant shelters. Even as migrants have come into the media spotlight, a complete spatial understanding of migrant clusters is missing. They are part of the urban poor living in slums and rented accommodation in poor localities. However, they also work in rural and urban peripheries near brickkilns, mines, farms, cotton mills and so on, whose plight in this crisis remains invisible. Many live in industrial corridors outside the city – in factories, small manufacturing units and construction sites – where the shelter solution has not been able to reach. Without wages, these workers have been unable to purchase ration, and relief work has also been difficult to reach semi-urban areas. While some states have highlighted migrant workers’ plight, no provisions are being made by the central government for return migration on the grounds that this would risk further spread of infection. This need not be a choice. Rather than leave migrants to their own devices, the government should facilitate and co-ordinate their safe return journey between states.

The lifting of the lockdown will thus not give migrants the confidence to remain in cities. It is imminent to open the flood gates for reverse migration, of the urban poor who were forced to stay back in cities and at other work sites. The shocks caused by the lockdown are also likely to influence migration flows and patterns negatively in the immediate future.

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