Covid-19 and Labor Migration – Opportunities and Challenges Ahead for India

The epidemics of the past was hardly concerned with migration and livelihood during colonial India, although major Indian cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and many other urban places hugely suffered from influenza, smallpox, plague, malaria and cholera. When migrants flee from the city, they not only lose their livelihood but they may carry the infections to their native places. This has obliterated the great contribution of migrants in economic growth, innovation, skill development and entrepreneurship in building cities and the nation. Failure to recognize migrants as a stakeholder in urban development is one of the biggest mistakes in achieving urban sustainability and realizing the goals of sustainable development in India.

Migrants suffer from the double burden of being poor and migrants. Many programmes meant for the poor do not reach them due to lack of identity and residential proofs. The lack of fulfilment of the economic, social and political rights of migrants is a serious issue even though they are formal citizens, their substantive citizenship rights are not fulfilled.

Impact of Covid-19 on Migrant Workers

The spread of Coronavirus from the epicentre of Wuhan in China to worldwide is attributed to migration and mobility of people. Migrants are most vulnerable to urban disasters and epidemics. The first case of Covid-19 surfaced in India on January 30, 2020, and following the outbreak, the lockdown in the entire country was announced on 24th March for a period of 21 days. Borders were sealed, transportation got stopped, factories, shops, restaurants and all type of the economic activities were shut, barring only the essential services. This proved to be a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who lost their livelihoods overnight and became homeless. The immediate challenges faced by these migrant workers were related to food, shelter, loss of wages, fear of getting infected and anxiety. As a result, thousands of them started fleeing from various cities to their native places. A telephonic survey of more than 3000 migrants from north-central India by Jan Sahas (2020) shows that majority of the workers were the daily wage earners and at the time of lockdown, one third was stuck at destinations city with no access to food, water and money. Those who reached their native villages were seen as potential carriers of the infection and were ill-treated by the police and locals. The very effort to stave off the pandemic turned into one of the greatest human tragedy in India’s recent history.

Response of Central and State Governments

To mitigate the effect of the lockdown on the vulnerable groups, the Government of India on 26 March 2020 announced a package of 1.7 lakh crore rupees under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana that entails an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice and one kg of preferred pulses every month to 80 crore beneficiaries for the next three months. Central Government also gave an order to the state governments to use Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund of Rs.52000 crores to provide relief to Construction Workers through direct benefit transfer (DBT).

However, the fear of loss of livelihood sparked into the mass exodus of millions of these migrant labourers, who started on a long ‘barefoot’ journey with their families to their native places. Till 31st March, 2020, 6.6 lakh migrant workers were accommodated in the 21,604 relief camps with provision of food, shelter and other basic necessities. Government of India also issued guidelines regarding mental health of the migrant workers. The relief provided by the government and non-government organizations (NGOs) may bring some relief to the migrants, but looking into the huge migrant population, the assistance provided proved highly inadequate.

Challenges and Future Strategy

There is huge uncertainty about how long this crisis will last and what damage it would do to the economy, livelihood of people, and availability of basic healthcare services. Some of these challenges need to be addressed instantly:
1. The instant challenges are related to stranded migrants such as providing food and basic amenities at camps by maintaining hygiene standards; providing basic health care and preventive kits; and providing counselling and psychological support to the migrants under the distress etc.
2. Data on volume and characteristics of the migrants (in camps, home quarantine) is needed to transfer the benefits of social welfare schemes at present and for future management needs.
3. During and post-lockdown period, how to provide the basic income support to migrants and their families left behind who are not registered with the social schemes and depend on daily wages for survival?
4. With severe disruption, the question arises, whether reverse migrants will come back to work in towns or stay in their villages. If they don’t return, how to deal with likely economic stress in destination areas?

Long Term Planning

1. Government should use the Public Distribution System (PDS) infrastructure and supply food grains and pulses on a weekly basis to meet the food and nutritional needs of migrant workers and their families.
2. Integration of migrants with development is the need of the hour. Government should seriously look into the recommendations of UNESCO-UNICEF and the Working Group on Migration and implement them at the earliest.
3. Public health system, particularly at the primary and secondary care, needs to be strengthened, investment should be increased, drug supply and equipment need to be made available at massive scale.
4. It is high time to establish synergy and coordination between the central and state government. Other agencies need to be mobilised to fight Covid-19 by taking the help of village Panchayats and Self Help Groups, stakeholders of society, NGOs and Corporates.
5. Starting of health insurance scheme for migrants may be helpful for the state government as well as migrants at the destination.
6. There is a need to strengthen the database on migration and migrant households through Census, National Sample Survey (NSS) and NFHS and Migration Surveys.

An Opportunity Towards Effective Labour Migration Governance

All states have sovereignty to develop their own policies to manage labour migration and that opportunities may vary nationally and it’s necessary to develop effective policy responses within migration corridors. Effective labour migration is required to respond to the changing needs of business and workers, with main focus on women and youth, and persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.

The ILO (International Labour Organization) approach to labour migration is towards balancing labour market efficiency and equity concerns via facilitating labour migration governance. If well-governed, labour migration can yield numerous positive benefits for all. But policies that aren’t firmly grounded with respect to human rights pose high risks and costs for migrant workers, businesses, and their nations. Thus, it is essential that policies are developed by considering current standards on human rights to ensure migrant labour have respectable living standards in society.

-Priyanka Marooh (One of the prize winners of Covid-19 Article Writing Competition in the 18-24 years age group)

Picture Credits: / Reuters

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