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For migrant workers, Bharat safer than India

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on June 26, 2020 Published on June 26, 2020

Though some migrants have returned to work it’s still only a trickle   -  Getty Images

While farms have managed to woo back labourers, it is still a trickle for industries

Forty-two-year-old Tanmoy, who worked in a plant on the outskirts of Siliguri and had lost his job during the lockdown, is happy that he decided to heed his friend Hari Santhal and come to Punjab.

“I was sitting idle and wanted to earn for my family. Since I had worked in farms earlier, I know transplanting,” says a smiling Tanmoy, who earns more than he used to. But he is an exception.

It may take a while for a majority of migrant labourers, who returned to their homes following the nationwide lockdown, to come back to work. The actual count of migrant labourers in the country is not available, but estimates varyfrom 4 crore to 8 crore.

Only a ‘trickle’

Those in dire need of labourers have managed to woo some back by offering better salaries/perks or other inducements. But Ravi Srivastava, Professor at the Institute of Human Development, says it’s “still a trickle.”

Some large farmers of Punjab, where labour-intensive paddy transplanting is in full swing, have managed to lure back hands from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh by offering better wages and other perks. Some have even convinced Dalit landless peasants, who had long stopped working in farms, to work the fields. Many are desperate for work; farmer unions in the State too have helped.

“Members of the Dalit community had stopped working in farms in Punjab and had moved to cities and other States to do odd jobs. After the lockdown, they have returned home and have no work. They are ready to work in the fields, provided they get good wages. Many farmer organisations, including ours, worked to bring them together in many villages,” says Darshan Pal, President of Krantikari Kisan Union.

Pal says the Dalit workers get ₹4,500-5,000 for transplanting an acre of paddy, nearly 50 per cent more than what migrant labourers were getting. There are also reports that some big farmers in the State managed to woo experienced hands from UP and Bihar by providing not just their train tickets, but also arranging for their 14-day quarantine and paying 40-50 per cent higher wages — in advance.

Despite all this, the number of labourers available is less than 50 per cent the usual. Yet, Sutanta Kumar Airi, Punjab Agriculture Director, says the labour shortage did not impact paddy planting in the State.

Then there are those like Hari Santhal, a migrant labourer from West Bengal, who decided to stay back. “We will go back after this work is over,” says Santhal, who has been coming to the region for 25 years for farm work. He is happy now, as he is getting nearly ₹4,000 per acre of transplanting work, nearly a third more than last year.

The picture in not so rosy in the mandis in Punjab and Haryana, where procurement is still on. “We have only 10-20 per cent labourers for loading and unloading,” says Gurdeep Kamra, Secretary, Haryana State Anaj Mandi Arthiya Association.

Elsewhere in the country, too, farm-related segments seem to be doing well on the labour front. For instance, rice mill owners in Telangana have managed to get some 20,000 labourers back from Bihar and other States with the State government’s support. This is possibly because workers are wary of going to cities and towns, where the Covid is raging, say observers.

Industries like construction, which opened up much earlier, are also seeing labourers return. “It started in May end, but in the past 15 days there has been a spike in their numbers. In my projects, some 70 per cent of the workforce has returned,” says Gaurs Group Managing Director Manoj Gaur, who is also Chairman of CREDAI’s Affordable Housing Committee.

Real estate companies are taking many initiatives: higher wages, and transport to bring labourers. Some companies have raised the wages of returneesby 10-15 per cent. Gaur says his company has told contractors to pay wages every two days, failing which labourers can approach the site in-charge or a company official directly.

Hospitality sector hit

But other sectors like hotels and restaurants are struggling. Gurbaxish Singh Kohli, Vice-President, Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India, and President, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India, says only a small proportion of workers has returned.

As Srivastava of the Institute of Human Development says: “People are still going back to their native places... They range from domestic workers to daily wage earners to those working in small and medium enterprises and manufacturing outfits. With factories becoming operational, skilled labourers may be getting calls to return.”

Indicatively, most trains are still ferrying back workers from major cities to their home States and not the other way round. That says something.

(With inputs from Shishir Sinha and Garima Singh)

Published on June 26, 2020
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