Narendar Pani

Will migrant workers return to the cities?

Narendar Pani | Updated on May 27, 2020

Given the treatment meted out to them during this crisis and the perils of inter-State travel, they may prefer to stay in their villages

When the anger and the pain of the migrant crisis begin to fade — and we must hope the process of getting them home becomes smoother than it is — it will be time to go beyond the political finger-pointing and look at the way forward. At the heart of the crisis is the dependence of India’s cities on its villages. The families of a significant section of those who work in our cities live in villages, leading such workers to identify more with the village than the city. At times of crisis, particularly when there is a panic about their very survival, nothing can be more important than returning home.

As the country tries to revive its urban economy as quickly as it can, the simple solution would appear to be try to get the workers to return. But this is not easy. For one, Covid-19 is still with us. The fear of death, that is now deeply embedded in the response to this virus, will keep workers from returning to urban centres — which are the epicentres of the disease. And the way workers were treated when the virus struck does little to encourage them to return. Many were not paid what was due to them, leaving them to cope with hunger. It will take a brave worker to follow the lure of the city against the fear of death and abandonment, not to mention the loss of dignity.

Guarantees needed

Rather than a complete return to the past, urban India may have to get used to post-Covid-19 cities with a different approach to migrant labour. For labourers to find it attractive to return, they may need a few guarantees. They would need to be assured of a place to stay at a reasonable rent as well as certainty about wages, so that they are not left starving again. And above all, they would need to be sure that when things go wrong, due to disease or anything else, they have the option of returning home as quickly as they can.

Meeting the last condition would be easier for workers within a State than for those who come in from long distances. For many years now, politicians have worked — usually quietly — to reduce the effects of the distances workers had to migrate. Railway ministers across political parties have often extended railway lines to more remote areas in States like Bihar, in order to make it easier for migrant workers to tap distant workplaces. This helped these workers overcome the fact that, while they were being forced to leave agriculture in the North and East of the country, they could access work in the South and the West.

The Covid-19 crisis has at one stroke reversed this political response. Chief ministers in the States to the North and the East have been averse to welcoming back migrant workers for fear that their dismal health systems would collapse under the slightest pressure. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was among the earliest to support the Prime Minister’s view that workers should remain where they were. Chief Ministers of other States were less vocal in their support to this view — and Bihar too changed its stand later — but the constraints they have placed on the return of these workers suggest that they are not too keen to welcome migrant workers back to their home-States.

Crossing the border

The emergence of State borders as controlled boundaries that have to be crossed has added a federal dimension to the crisis of migrant workers. The problem is not one of the distance that has to be travelled alone, but also a political one of crossing State boundaries. From the political rhetoric of one-nation one-tax and now one-nation one-ration-card, migrant workers have been forced to recognise their State identities. What the Raj Thackerays of yore could not achieve has now been enforced by more successful mainstream politicians.

It is difficult to say how deep a scar this will leave on migrant workers, but it does appear that any assumption that they will return to their workplaces as soon as they reopen is much too sanguine. Workers can be expected to be much more sensitive to their distance from home, especially if it crosses State boundaries. If our cities are going to continue to be dependent on workers who consider their villages to be their homes, these workers would have to come from within individual States.

Such a post-Covid-19 situation would have its influence on the patterns of urbanisation as well. States to the North and the East of India, where agriculture is no longer able to absorb all those who need work, would have to develop their own industrial strategies to employ these workers. Such widely-dispersed urbanisation is by no means a bad thing, but we don’t quite seem to know how to get there.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on May 27, 2020

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