The novel coronavirus has infected more than 14 million people and taken more than 600 thousand lives across the globe. The COVID-19 has been declared as a public health emergency and a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It has left the people from all walks of life unrehearsed and taken a toll over several sectors of the economy, but the most adversely affected among them are the migrant workers or the daily wage earners who came from villages to find vocations and contributing in building cities. The economic crisis induced by COVID‐19 could be long, deep, and pervasive when viewed through a migration lens.
The government’s response to the migrant crisis, probably the worst of its kind since independent India, also termed as “reverse migration”, has been multifaceted. This issue has evoked widespread public debate in the development discourse in India. The response to the pandemic began with a Janata Curfew or voluntary isolation on 22nd March. As the countries declared “lockdown” to break the cycle of transmission, the Govt. of India announced a 14-day lockdown starting from 25th March declared a day before at 20:00 Hrs. The announcement led to the sudden shutdown of shops, factories, and construction work. Although the initial response to the lockdown was affirmative, the subsequent lockdown left many of the migrant workers jobless. On the other hand, with the implementation of the Lockdown 2.0, their hope to go back home seemed to shrink. We call this as the “double trap”, i.e., on one hand, the workers did not have jobs to meet their daily needs like buying rations and paying rent; and, on the other hand, they couldn’t return to their homes because of suspension of travel, logistics and curfew kind of lockdown.
This, perhaps resulted in millions of workers thronging roads and bus stations to quickly find ways to get back home. The Govt. response in the form of the “Shramik trains” was noteworthy to ensure that pregnant women, senior citizens, and children could reach back home. But these trains faced a lot of criticism including taking 72 hours to reach a destination, lacking in minimum facilities like water and food, and then being diverted to be reported as “lost”. Moreover, subsidizing the ticket price was the way to go but the government chose to introduce a price hike, which augmented their already miserable state.
Migration induced challenge is not a new phenomenon in India. The pandemic has brought to light the persisting long-standing migration problem and social security issues. This has not only led to financial constraints but also magnified mental and psychological issues. When we look closely at the migrants’ place of origin, from where they migrated, we notice that it has been in a miserable condition for decades due to lopsided economic development. A prevalent example of these is Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal which are the biggest contributors of migrants to other states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana for decades. A large number of these are agricultural labourers who want to shift to other vocations as traditional methods of farming are not yielding adequate livelihoods. Their problems are compounded by battling poverty due to lack of financial incentives and climate change, they face difficulty in getting buying machinery and agricultural inputs which would increase their farm yield. This is the primary reason why they migrate to urban towns in search of jobs. Even though new states have been carved out with the hope to give attention to development, the initiatives have fallen short of achieving desired results. Like in Uttarakhand, there is a shortage of basic facilities including healthcare which has made over 500 villages face 50% migration turning them into ghost villages.
It is unlikely that the vast numbers of migrants are going to return any time soon to cities. The reverse migration, triggered by the lockdown and COVID-19 pandemic, could be seen as an opportunity to bolster the agricultural sector in the short-run. One should integrate the process of reverse migration with agro-based in the short-run and build long term measures simultaneously in the form of the financial incentives to build MSMEs that supply goods and services to Urban areas.
However, there lie many challenges such as the ecological constraints and uneven development patterns that may come in the way of these long term solutions for the states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It is high time for the State Governments to look within and bring development to backward areas by innovative schemes and policies which augment the young migrants to set up industries and SEZs. Although cash schemes and building works under MGNREGA can provide short term solutions, in the long run, the Government must focus on skills and entrepreneurship to promote equitable development so that all regions can provide opportunities. The two states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, also have demographic dividends on their side, so the focus on youth entrepreneurship can bring faster results. These measures would not only solve the problems of the underdeveloped areas but also the colossal population pressure which has fatigued developed cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru.
An appropriate policy framework consisting of both short-term and long-term measures should be adopted by the policymakers to ensure that youth from backward and underdeveloped areas live a stable life and meet their aspirations at the places of birth and childhood; and, they never have to witness “double trap” every again.
About the authors
Yug Jyotirmay Singh is a second-year student majoring in Statistics, with a minor in Economics at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. With a Data-driven approach, Yug aims at using economics and finance to create a wider impact on society through his published works by democratizing the research.
Yashika Thapar is a sophomore majoring in Political Science at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. With the head for business and heart for the world, Yashika looks forward to positively impact society by virtue of her research skills and revolutionary ideas.
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