Almost all villagers in the tiny hamlet of Sadakwadi in Maharashtra’s tribal-dominated Palghar district migrate to Mumbai and Thane to work as construction labourers and return during monsoon to work in their fields. They live in temporary makeshift tin shed houses in cities that lack basic facilities like water and sanitation.

But this is not just the case with Sadakwadi residents. “Cities don’t care for people who build cities and serve citizens. We have to take shelter in our village in hours of crisis,” said Ratnakar Konde, a migrant labourer who returned from Pune to Jalna, his hometown, after the Covid-19 outbreak.

Reverse migration

The Ministry of Labour and Employment informed the Lok Sabha earlier this month that the migration of workers is a continuous process, and that migrant workers keep moving in search of work. But, in the last few days, thousands of migrant labourers across India are moving back to their villages as they are unsure of their survival in the cities during and after the lockdown.

The Ministry cited Economic Survey 2016-17, which estimated the size of the nation’s workforce, per Census 2011, at 48.2 crore. Based on extrapolation, this figure would have exceeded 50 crore in 2016. If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated at even 20 per cent, the size of the migrant workforce would be 10 crore in 2016 in absolute terms.

“There is no value for labourers and their labour,” observed Nitin Pawar, who works for the welfare of migrant labourers. “The massive migration of labourers across India shows that cities have no place for them and no mechanism to provide even basic needs like food and shelter during crises.”

A big chunk of migrant labourers comes from the farming sector. The share of the workforce engaged in the agriculture sector (comprising cultivators and agricultural labourers) has come down from 58.2 per cent in 2001 to 54.6 per cent in 2011. “The migration of agricultural labour from rural to urban areas is a general phenomenon and a natural part of the development process. The reasons for this shift include better employment opportunities in industry and services, increasing urbanisation, low income in agriculture, etc,” said the Ministry of Agriculture in a document.

“Why would I leave my village and migrate to the city if I have enough work in my village?” asked 61-year-old Shantaram Choudhary, a Sadakwadi villager. Life with dignity is the right of every human being, he said, wondering why labourers are often an exception.

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